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Lantern Festival (元宵, yuánxiāo, or “first night”) is the 15th day of the Chinese New Year, and marks the last day of Spring Festival. This “first night” is actually the first full moon of the lunar new year, and in the Year of the Monkey it falls on February 22. On this holiday, it’s customary for revelers to light red lanterns, and in Shanghai, revelers typically head to Yu Gardens, a busy central location known for its Lantern Festival entertainment. Those looking to avoid the crowds at Yu Gardens may head instead to the International Magic Lantern Carnival taking place near the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Pudong, where innovative lighting displays take over an area the size of 30 football fields (with an entrance fee). But one of the most important ways of celebrating the holiday involves food – specifically, the sweet stuffed dumplings called tāngyuán (汤圆).

Tangyuan – also known as yuánxiāo, after the holiday on which they are eaten – are often referred to in English as glutinous rice balls because their main ingredient is flour made from “glutinous” or “sticky” rice. Traditionally, the balls come stuffed with sweet black sesame paste, although the fillings can vary; the Shanghainese, for example, also like to put a savory spin on the dumplings by making a version with pork.

Legends about the origin of Lantern Festival abound – from mythical cranes descending from the heavens to vengeful gods with herds of fire-breathing dragons – but one story rings truest to our hungry ears, and it is conveniently the one that explains how tangyuan came to be part of the myth. During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220), a girl named Yuan Xiao was taken from her home when she was Mei Xin, photo by UnTour Shanghaivery young to serve the emperor by making the best tangyuan in the kingdom. She hadn’t seen her family during all her years of servitude, and her homesickness had driven her to thoughts of suicide. One of the emperor’s advisors, Dong Fangshuo, found her weeping next to a well, contemplating her final leap. The kind mandarin heard her story and swore he would find a way to reunite her with her family.

To make good on his promise, Dong Fangshuo took over the street stall of a soothsayer and began foretelling that the God of Fire would send an inferno to burn down the capital on the 15th day of the first lunar month. The citizens of the capital panicked, and soon the emperor heard tell of the coming catastrophe, so he sent for his trusted advisor: Dong Fangshuo. The faux fortune-teller told the emperor that if the city were to set off fireworks and hang red lanterns on the 15th day of the month, it would look aflame and thereby appease the God of Fire. He also mentioned that the god’s favorite snack was glutinous rice balls, and that an offering of Yuan Xiao’s tangyuan wouldn’t hurt, either. The emperor agreed and invited his kingdom to take part in the celebration. Yuan Xiao’s family came to the capital to join in the festivities, where they were reunited with their daughter. And they all lived happily ever after.

Today, the perfectly round rice balls and the bowls in which they are served represent not only the family unity that brought together Yuan Xiao and her parents, but also the full moon that shines overhead during the holiday. Not only that, the word “tangyuan” sounds like the word for reunion, tuányuán (团圆) – a sweet note on which to end a holiday that’s all about family togetherness in China.

In a previous post, we talked about two of our favorite spots to gobble up some symbolic family unity, and here are two more. (Note: Though tangyuan are most popular during Lantern Festival, they can be found at these venues year-round.)

Mei Xin's pork-stuffed tangyuan, photo by UnTour ShanghaiMei Xin Snack House
The golden placard outside this unassuming hole-in-the-wall is the only thing that denotes its nearly century-long history as a “Shanghai Famous Snack” purveyor. This cafeteria-style restaurant has been churning out bowls of noodles, wontons and spring rolls since 1925, but the tangyuan are what keep people coming back for more. Made by an assembly line of ayis on the first floor, the pork- (鲜肉汤团, xiānròu tāngtuán) and black sesame-stuffed (芝麻汤团, zhīma tāngtuán) rice balls are made by hand throughout the day – a nice feast for the eyes if you come hungry and have to hover over a table for your turn to sit and eat. They also sell both varieties of tangyuan in bulk, so you can take them home and boil them up for your own dinner table.

Da Pai Xiao Chu
This restaurant from Nanjing borrows its name (“Big License, Small Kitchen”) from the street food vendors in Hong Kong that bore their government’s stamp of approval in the form of a plate outside their open-air stalls. The interior here is anything but hawker-shabby, what with its funky red and lime color scheme, hand-drawn paper-and-wire chandeliers and waiters clad in denim shirts tied with kerchiefs punching orders into an iPhone-like device. The homage to the stalls comes from the long, open kitchen, which shows chefs focused on doing just a few things very well. While the menu is expansive, so is the line of chefs, and included is a unique twist on traditional sweet tangyuan. The balls are made of candied taro (桂花糖芋苗, guìhuā táng yùmiáo) instead of glutinous rice, and they swim in a fragrant purple osmanthus soup with little buds floating in the viscous dessert broth.

This article was originally published on March 13, 2015. It has been updated on February 19, 2016.

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Published on February 19, 2016

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