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Chewy, sweet, and sometimes colourful, for most Chinese families, Lantern Festival (the fifteenth and final day of the Lunar New Year) isn’t complete without the Tangyuan. Also known as the “Yuanxiao”, these glutinous rice balls immersed in boiled water or sweet syrup is one of the most important Lantern Festival dishes. Round like the moon, and served in a round bowl, the Tangyuan also symbolises family unity to Chinese families across the globe.
Legend of the Tangyuan
For a dish that has been passed through several centuries of Chinese families, the origin of the tangyuan dish has its own folklore. One of the most popular versions of the tangyuan origin story is that of a maid of honour named Yuan Xiao, in the Han dynasty.
Yuan Xiao was taken from home when she was very young and given to serve in the emperor’s palace. She missed her parents terribly and always had a strong urge to go visit them, but she wasn’t allowed to leave the palace. One of the ministers of Han dynasty knew about this and he promised to help her. He asked her to make a lot of Tangyuan in order to worship the Gods on the fifteenth day of the first month of the Chinese calendar.
Yuan Xiao made the best tangyuan she could. The emperor was so impressed with the effort she put into making tangyuan, that he permitted her to visit her parents and also renamed Tangyuan as Yuanxiao to honour her. The fifteenth day of the first month of the Chinese calendar was also considered to be the Yuanxiao festival. This is also symbolic of a family reunion with her family and hence tangyuan are eaten during Lantern Festival.
Eating Tangyuan During the Lantern Festival
Eating these succulent sweet treats is an integral part of the Lantern Festival and is usually eaten after the lanterns are released in the sky. Eating them is also a way for the Chinese to express their love, regards and best wishes for their families.