Lunar New Year Tang Yuan to support the Kidneys

This is another childhood favorite that I enjoyed during colder months, an especially popular dessert that we ate during Lunar New Year. These sticky rice dumplings (tang yuan), filled with slightly sweet black sesame and walnut paste, floating in a fragrant sweet ginger syrup are chewy, texturally satisfying, easily digestible and warming for your insides.

A simple, light and nutritious sweet treat that is ideal following the weeks of holiday feasting, rich, unusual foods and over-indulgence! Not to mention, it is gluten-free AND supportive for your hardworking Kidneys and Spleen.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the Kidneys are our energetic genetic foundation acting as our rechargeable battery for Qi (life force), in the body. This Qi stored in reserve so that it may be used in times of stress and illness. Taking the cue from nature, the Winter season is intended for rest as well as energy conservation and rebuilding. Hence, it is logically the season of the Kidneys and Urinary Bladder.

Referred to as “The Root of Life” in TCM, the Kidneys store Essence (Jing), both our power source as well as what we inherit from our parents (genetics). Jing, in a nutshell, is Qi in concentrated form. This vital and precious substance consists of two main components: (1) our genetics or basic constitution (what we are born with), (2) the energy we acquire through nutrition/herbs/moxa/etc. for growth and maturation. And the general wear and tear of our lives through outside forces such as illness, trauma, injury and other stressors can lead to the gradual depletion of our Jing.

The Kidneys are also responsible for numerous key functions including generating marrow (regulating the production of bones, bone marrow, brain, spinal cord) and in turn, memory, concentration, sight as well as will power (as governed by the spirit of the Kidneys, the “Zhi:). Kidney Jing is also the foundation of the entire body’s Yin and Yang, our Kidneys also work together with our Lungs to facilitate respiration through the function of “grasping Qi” or drawing the energy of our breath down.

Our Kidneys are indispensable for efficient and healthy bodily function, so what better way to treat yourselves (and your Kidneys) to this nourishing and traditional dessert during the seasonal transition from Winter (Water season) to Spring (Wood season).

This recipe will yield about 16 tang yuan

You will need a mortar and pestle or clean coffee grinder & a slotted spoon
for this recipe!

Ingredients for tang yuan:

  • 2 cups of glutinous rice flour
    Commonly found at Asian grocery stores, I find the Elephant Brand from Thailand is always available
  • 1 cup of warm water
  • 1/3 cup black sesame seeds
  • 1/4 cup walnuts
  • 3 tbsp honey
  • 1 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
  • Pinch of sea salt

Ingredients for ginger syrup:

  • 4 cups of water
  • 3-4 tbsp of honey or brown sugar
    (use less for a less sweet syrup )
  • A thumb-sized knob of fresh ginger, sliced

Instructions for the ginger syrup:

  1. In a saucepan, bring your 4 cups of water to a boil, add your slices of ginger, then reduce heat to a simmer.
  2. Once you see the water begin to turn light yellow due to the properties of the ginger being extracted by the boiling process, add your sweetener and continue to simmer until the mixture begins to thicken slightly into a thin syrup.
  3. Once the syrup is at the flavor and consistency you desire, turn the stove to low and cover with a lid to keep the syrup warm.

Instructions for the black sesame filling:

  1. Heat a dry frying pan on medium-low, once up to temperature, add your walnuts and black sesame, stirring regularly to toast the ingredients and avoid burning them.
  2. Once you start to smell the walnuts and sesame getting nuttier and toasted, turn off the heat and let them cool. Once cool, grind them into a coarse powder using your mortar and pestle/coffee grinder to an approximate consistency to ground coffee.
  3. Transfer your sesame-walnut powder to a bowl. Mix in your honey, olive oil and sea salt. The mixture should be moistened enough that it can be molded and gently rolled into balls. If your mixture is too dry, add a 1/2 tsp more of olive oil and incorporate into the paste.

Instructions for making & cooking the tang yuan:

  1. In a separate bowl, mix your glutinous rice flour and water until you reach the consistency of playdough – soft, moldable, but no longer sticky.
    The measurements are an approximation, so you may need to make adjustments to yield the right consistency:
    > If your mixture is too sticky, add 1-2 tbsp rice flour to offset the water and mix again;
    > If your mixture is too dry and you’re having trouble incorporating it into a dough, add 1-2 tbsp of water and mix again.
  2. Now to fill your tang yuan with your sesame-walnut filling (see image below).
    Take ~1.5 tbsp of the rice flour dough, roll it into a ball, then press a deep hole into the ball and spoon 1/2-3/4 tsp of the filling into the hole (do not overfill). Then carefully wrap rice flour dough over the hole so the filling doesn’t fall out, then roll back into a ball. This will make a tang yuan of approximately 1.5″ in diameter. Set aside on a plate, don’t place them too close together in case they stick together.
  3. Repeat the process until you either run out of rice flour dough or sesame-walnut filling.
    *If you have leftover filling, you can make a small amount of rice flour dough to squeeze out a few tang yuan OR the filling keeps well in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.
  4. Fill a large pot (the tang yuan need generous room bounce around while cooking) 2/3 full with water and bring it to a boil. Have your slotted spoon and small serving bowls on hand (I like using rice bowls).
  5. Once your water is at rolling boil, one-by-one, gently drop your tang yuan into the water and use your slotted spoon to nudge the tong yuan so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Keep an eye on them and gently stir them occasionally so they don’t stick to the bottom or each other.
  6. When the tang yuan stay floating at the top of the water, scoop them out with your slotted spoon and transfer into your serving bowls.
    *The cooked tang yuan can also be stored for a few hours in cold water, that stops the cooking process and prevents them from sticking together
  7. When ready to serve, spoon some of your warm ginger syrup over top.
    Enjoy carefully…they are very hot!
    *I recommend serving your tong yuan 3 at a time – the number 3 (三, pinyin: sān) sounds like 生 (pinyin: shēng), which means “to live” or “life” so it’s considered a good number. It’s significant since it is one of three important stages in a person’s life (birth, marriage, and death).

Uncooked tang yuan also freeze really well! Simply put them on a parchment lined baking sheet and put them in the freezer for at least 2 hours. Then they can be stored in the freezer in a tupperware or Ziploc bag. Then simply follow the same cooking process, but put the frozen tang yuan directly in the boiling water, no need to defrost.

You can also get creative with the filling! As long as the ingredients can be ground and turned into a paste. My paternal grandmother use to make a filling made of peanuts, coconut, chen pi (preserved mandarin peel), sugar and butter.

You can also adjust the flavors of the sweetened syrup to suit your tastes or with the change in season. Common alternatives include jasmine tea and osmanthus, but flavors such as Chai (cinnamon, cardamon, star anise, black tea, etc.) would also be very tasty and appropriate in colder weather.

General properties of main ingredients:

  • Black sesame helps to tonify Liver and Kidney yin. Sesame in general (both black and white) can combat the aging and their neutral and slightly sweet flavor is beneficial in tonifying yin. Specifically, black sesame also aids in moistening the Large Intestine and promote regular bowel movements.
  • Walnuts in TCM are known for their ability to tonify Qi, Yang, and Jing. It also helps to expel cold and resolve phlegm. They are considered warm and sweet in their energetics, entering the Lung, Small Intestine, Kidney and Large Intestine systems. They are also an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based omega-3 essential fatty acid, which is considered an important nutrient for brain function…in case you noticed walnuts look like brains!
  • Sea salt or salty flavors are associated with the Kidney system. TCM believes that moderate amounts of salt are important for Kidney support and that salty foods can “soften hardness” in the body, making them useful for resolving lumps and bumps as well as helping with constipation.
  • Rice for many is a well-tolerated grain and considered hypoallergenic. Glutinous rice also has a higher simple sugar content, which in TCM translates into being more nourishing and Qi-Blood building.
  • Honey has the ability to nourish yin. It’s sweet and sticky properties soothe, moisten and nourishe Lungs, Large intestine, Spleen and Stomach, it can tonify Qi-Blood and prevents dryness. 
  • Ginger (fresh) due to its pungent, spicy flavor can disperse Wind-Cold from the body, and it has a mild effect in promoting sweating and releasing the Exterior (opening your pores for pathogens to leave your body).

In colder months, it is important to feed yourself foods that both compliment and balance the climate and your personal constitution. By consuming something warm, you avoid shocking your internal organs, taxing your digestive fire and cooking is a method of “pre-digesting” your food. It will also require less energy to breakdown and assimilate the nutrients. I think this simple, sweet treat checks all those boxes as well as it being a nourishing and celebratory dessert for the Lunar New Year!

I wish you all a dynamic, fortuitous and abundant year of the Wood Dragon!! STOP ASIAN HATE, FREE PALESTINE and liberation for all!!

Xīn nián kuài lè, 新年快乐!!

~Christina Chan, R.Ac.

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