Yuan Xiao 元宵 & the Heat of the Lantern Festival

Yuan Xiao, balls of fermented glutinous rice, are the convivial heart of the holiday. Yuan Xiao bounce chubbily in boiling pots of water, its warmth sending rays of ardor.  While the cool temperature of the ball typifies readiness, teeth sink into a scorching peanut paste. Heat, the primary source to its delectability, is also a figurative description of the environment where Yuan Xiao was created.  After a few days of heavy snow, Minister Dongfang walked into the Imperial Garden to pick plum blossoms for Emperor Wu, leader of the Han Dynasty. Despite the cold, he felt an entrapping warmth in this garden: a palace girl was bursting into tears, her legs dangling down a well ready to jump. Dongfang asked why she wanted to end her own life, and after exchanging some basic information, he found out her name was Yuan Xiao. Since Yuan Xiao started working in the palace, she never reunited her family. Yuan Xiao would rather die than be incapable of serving her family. Dongfang listened to her story, felt sympathy, and made an inhibited promise she would reunite with her family.

The following day, Minister Dongfang set up a divination booth on the street in the capital city. Many rushed to hear expected words of luck, but received the same frightening prediction “Body burnt on the Sixteenth of the first month”. People rushed to the palace to report to Emperor Wu, criticizing the false prediction.Emperor Wu discovered from Dongfang that the city had disrespected the Jade Emperor in heaven so much so that the Emperor would send the God of Fire to burn all those who have sinned. Dongfang innovated the one thing that could tame the ferocious, heated God of Fire: the soft, pillowy balls of Yuan Xiao. Dongfang urged each household to make glutinous rice balls in addition to lanterns, which neighborhoods would line their streets with at night so the Jade Emperor believed the city was already on fire. He encouraged other celebratory – and life-saving – tactics such as firecrackers and fireworks to distract the Jade Emperor from their own deaths.

On the eve of the fifteenth day of the first month, the city bustled with bright lights and the brightest idea of Dongfang. Every household hastily wrapped Yuan Xiao, constructed lanterns, marked their names on each, and hung them on lampposts and street signs. When every light bulb, every candle, and every firecracker in the city were lit, people filtered out of their houses to observe the fiery beauty that had engulfed the city. Even the family of Yuan Xiao traveled from the rural outskirts to watch, and when the parents spotted a large lantern with the name “Yuan Xiao”, the shock generated exhilaration. The parents shouted their daughter’s name, and when Yuan Xiao heard the voices of her beloved family, she knew she was home.

After a night of lanterns, snacks, fireworks, and reunion, the capital city remained safe and intact. Emperor Wu was so pleased with Dongfang’s predictions and tactics that on every 15th of the first lunar month, he ordered rice balls to worship the fire god and ordained the holiday, Yuan Xiao Festival.

In the past millennium, Yuan Xiao developed into distinctive shapes and tastes. The rice wrap can be made of a different kind of rice or wheat, and the filling can entice the tongue with savory or sweet notes. Sweet fillings include flower-scented sugar, hawthorn, red bean, sesame, or peanuts. Salty fillings of the five-spice Yuan Xiao compose of mustard, garlic, chive, green scallion, and ginger, which translates to hard work, longevity, and movement upward.
The methods of cooking diversify from boiling in a soup, to stir-frying or deep-frying, to steaming. The sizes of Yuan Xiao vary from as large as walnuts to as small as soybeans. Some even choose to leave their Yuan Xiao unfilled, embracing the cucu texture of a ball of glutinous rice flour. Methods of preparation differ between the North and South: in the North, Yuan Xiao are rolled in a bowl of flower, while in the South, Tang Yuan are rolled in the palm.

From their chubby and dewy appearances, Yuan Xiao and Tang Yuan are the same, both consisting of glutinous rice flour skin that encase a rich nutty filling. However, from the process, Yuan Xiao and Tang Yuan differ. Last Winter Solstice (December 2019), I taught you how to wrap the glutinous rice dough within the nutty filling of Southern-style Tang Yuan, pinching with your fingers and rolling through your palm. For the 2020 Lantern Festival on February 8th, I will be teaching you the traditional process of wrapping the Northern Yuan Xiao using no hands– just a pan, glutinous rice powder, and a sesame ball. As you construct the delicacies, you’ll compare and contrast the ways in which Yuan Xiao and Tang Yuan are crafted differently. Yuan Xiao requires less manual labor, but the results are delectably the same.

Tang Yuan are more delicately constructed by the hands, thus consist of a thinner skin.

Yuan Xiao require more “foolhardy” techniques, with a complete absence of hand formation. The skin is usually thicker, and the ball is overall fatter.


  • 1 Cup of Black sesame
  • ½ C of Sugar
  • 6 Tbs Coconut oil (melted)
  • Water
  • 1 lb. of glutinous rice flour
Ingredients and appliances shown above.

Steps for the black sesame filling:

  1. Roast the black sesame in a toaster oven on 200°F for 2 minutes. It’s important not to over-roast your seeds, as they will become too bitter. Afterwards, allow the seeds to cool.
  2. Using a food processor, grind the sesame seeds into a powder, then add sugar into the sesame powder. Quickly pulse 3 times. Add coconut oil into the mixture, and keep the food processor on until you see the mixture becomes a bit runny.
    1. Pour the black sesame mixture into a container. Store it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes until hardening.
  3. Scoop out ½ teaspoon of the hardened black sesame mixture, using both palms to roll it into a ball shape depicted below.
“Naked” Yuan Xiao!

This part of the Yuan Xiao recipe diverges from the Tang Yuan recipe. Instead of mixing glutinous rice flour in water to form a dough skin, you will be placing the filling balls directly in the flour, dipping it in water, and repeating this process.

Steps for the “rolling” process: treat this like a growing baby. Each time the Yuan Xiao goes in for another dry flour roll, it should attain a fatter layer of skin.

  1. Fill a rice bowl with water.
  2. Fill a frying pan with 1 lb. of glutenous rice flour.
  3. Drop five black sesame balls into the flour, then shift the pan back and forth several times until the every side of the sesame balls are coated with flour.
  4. Gently pick up the flour coated balls, and quickly dip them in water. It is crucial that you perform this step with speed to avoid soaking the flour-coated balls in water for too long, as the flour will dissolve.
  5. Drop the sesame balls back to the flour pan again. Shift the pan back and forth until the entire sesame ball are coated with a new dry layer of flour.
  6. Repeat these steps 10 times. The Yuan Xiao should enlarge, like a baby, each time.
Drop the sesame ball in a pan of flour.
Shift the ball around the pan until the entire ball is covered in flour. I toss the pan to provide an even coat.
Spoon the ball out of the pan and drop it into water for a few seconds. This step should be performed swiftly.
Spoon the ball out of the water.
After 10 repetitions, your Yuan Xiao should fatten up with a thick glutinous rice skin.

Advice for cooking: you can either steam or boil your Yuan Xiao.

  • Steam them in a steamer of boiling water.
  • Boil them in a medium pot of boiling water. Once the Yuan Xiao float, add ½ cup of cold water. When the pot bubbles, turn the flame to medium and boil for another 2 minutes.
My family steams our Yuan Xiao.

CAUTION! HUNGER MAY BE UNSUPPRESSABLE, BUT SO IS THE YUAN XIAO’S HEAT! Because these glutinous rice balls retain both the heat of their filling and hot air, Yuan Xiao may be deadly for your tongue. But if you wait for just enough time (I recommend blowing consistently on the Yuan Xiao for about a minute), the runny black sesame filling burst is worth the anticipation.

The dessert serves many purposes, carrying the namesake of a lonely, dying girl; distracting the God of Fire’s apocalypse; providing an opportunity for us and our future generations to experience Chinese culture through its most genuine form– food.

Published by holidaysallyearround

For most cultures, holidays serve as the only opportunities in the year in which we come together: to reunite with faraway relatives, reconcile our past ancestors, and refill stomachs. And for most, holidays fall deep into history, myths, or grandma's fictitious tales that dictate the food boiling after a sacrificial ceremony to the decorations adorned on doors.

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