The two-week Chinese New Year celebration ends with the Lantern Festival this Thursday, the night of the first full moon of the New Year. As part of the festivities, revelers will eat tang yuan, glutinous rice balls (think: mochi) that are filled or plain and served in a sweet soup that symbolizes family togetherness.
The most common version of tang yuan features small rice balls filled with black sesame paste, served either in a clear broth or in a fermented rice broth with grains of rice and streaks of egg. The latter version, jiu niang tang yuan, translates as "wine brew" or "wine sauce" but is more like an egg-drop soup, only sweet instead of savory. The mild, sake-like flavor of the broth provides an added dimension.
While traditionally eaten for the Lantern Festival, tang yuan is available year round, and you can find it at most Shanghainese restaurants including Emperor Noodles, Mei Long Village, Shanghai Gourmet and Wang Jia. It also appears on a few non-Shanghainese restaurants, under a variety of translations and in various sections, which can make it a challenge to find.
For a unique version, head to Dongbei-style Shen Yang Restaurant on San Gabriel Boulevard in San Gabriel. They serve a piping-hot version filled with hawthorn berry jam and sesame seeds, chopped peanuts and a few other goodies in a plain broth. The taste of hawthorn berry has been compared to a tart cherry or a cross between cranberry and raspberry. Sweetened, it's reminiscent of a hot raspberry jam-filled dumpling. It appears as A23 on the menu: Hawthorn Berry & Stick Rice Ball.
Unfilled tang yuan served in a thickened soup, either red bean or sesame, can be found at Cantonese restaurants and Kang Kang Food Court (which will always be known as Shau May to long time SGV residents). Small, unfilled tang yuan also can be found as an option for shaved ice or shaved snow.
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Other versions of tang yuan are filled with red bean paste or peanuts. In China, less traditional fillings such as chocolate or pumpkin as well as savory versions are found, but remain unavailable here, even among the hundreds of restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.
Emperor Noodles: 800 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel 91755; (626) 281-2777.
Kang Kang Food Court: multiple locations around the San Gabriel Valley.
Mei Long Village: 301 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel 91776; (626) 284-4769.
Shanghai Gourmet: 933 W. Duarte Rd., Monrovia 91016; (626) 574-5960.
Shen Yang Restaurant: 137 S. San Gabriel Blvd., Suite A, San Gabriel 91776; (626) 292-5758.
Wang Jia (CLOSED): 156 S. San Gabriel Blvd.; San Gabriel 91776; (626) 291-2233.