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Chinese Cuisine

The Ugliest Dish We've Ever Loved: Jiu Niang Tang Yuan at Mei Long Village

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Tue, Jan 25, 2011 at 2:30 PM

click to enlarge The Lantern Festival, during which Tang Yuan is traditionally eaten - TING W. CHANG
  • Ting W. Chang
  • The Lantern Festival, during which Tang Yuan is traditionally eaten

The Chinese dessert called jiu niang tang yuan consists of stuffed, glutinous balls floating in fermented rice wine. Has there ever been another food that required as many unfortunate adjectives to describe? Glutinous. Balls. Floating. Fermented. Just reading as far as this sentence has probably earned you some amount of foodie cred.

The fact is, jiu niang tang yuan (Tang yuan, which translates literally into "round balls in soup," is also derived from Yuanxiao, the Lantern Festival held the first full moon following the Chinese New Year, during which it is traditionally eaten), is pretty much as unphotogenic as it sounds. Its translucent white broth--viscous, with a somewhat phlegmy appearance--is speckled with rice and yellowish bits of eggs. And of course, there are those rubbery-looking blobs of boiled glutinous rice flour, which bob around in the bowl like so many little white eyeballs.

We didn't know this a few days ago, when we set out for dinner at Mei Long Village. But as soon as we spied jiu niang tang yuan on the menu (described in English as "sesame rice balls in rice wine soup"), a half-formed memory rose up from the murky recesses of our brain: A years-old review by SinoSoul blogger Tony C., who had singled out jiu niang tang yuan as the best dish in the house.

The large bowl that arrived at our table had steam rising off the top that was sweet, not savory, with the pungent tang of alcohol. Its thick broth was a rice-ier version of hot mulled wine (think: hot sake-flavored syrup). And the slick little rice balls burst open between our teeth to reveal an inner core of black sesame paste.

click to enlarge The jiu niang tangyuan at Mei Long Village
  • The jiu niang tangyuan at Mei Long Village

Spoons froze in midair; sideways looks were shot across the table. The kind of looks that say, "God, that's good" (though, generally punctuated by one or more unprintable expletives).

Slippery, syrupy, squishy, gooey--every belly-warming slurp of jiu niang tang yuan was pure, sensory entertainment. After a few spoonfuls, our plan to try the dessert offerings a few doors down was quickly dismissed. Next to that steamy, wine-spiked bowl of jiu niang tang yuan, shaved ice suddenly left us (sorry) cold.

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