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Tangyuan Soup Is One of the Sweetest Lunar New Year Traditions

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Overhead view of a bowl of colorful glutinous rice balls, or tangyuan, served in a ceramic bowl on gold cloth.
Annie's T Cakes proprietor Annie Wang says her tangyuan soup kits are a way for her to provide some cultural education for her customers. (Courtesy of Annie's T Cakes)

Annie Wang remembers eating hot tangyuan soup when she was a kid. On chilly nights — or whenever her parents felt the inclination to prepare them — she’d spoon the chewy, sticky-sweet glutinous rice balls into her mouth. She didn’t think of them as being associated with any particular holiday or cultural tradition. “They were just a treat,” Wang says.

For the past two years, Wang has run Annie’s T Cakes, a home bakery that specializes in vegan Chinese and Taiwanese sweets. The business has provided, among other things, an ongoing cultural education for the baker. Now, Wang knows that tangyuan are traditionally eaten during Lunar New Year — specifically to celebrate the Lantern Festival, which takes place on the 15th and final day of the holiday. She knows that the dessert symbolizes the big family gatherings that typically happen at this time of year because the word “tangyuan” sounds similar to the phrase “tuan yuan,” which means “reunion.”

And of course Wang also learned to make her own version, which Annie’s T Cakes will sell this year to help customers ring in the Year of the Rabbit (or the Year of the Cat, if you’re Vietnamese). The tangyuan soup kits can be preordered from now through Jan. 15, and they’ll be available for pickup in Oakland in the days leading up to Lunar New Year, which falls on Jan. 22 this year.

Cross section of a tangyuan (glutinous rice ball) on a spoon, with the black sesame filling visible.
The tangyuan come in four flavors: black sesame (pictured here), red bean, peanut and ube. (Courtesy of Annie's T Cakes)

These days Bay Area dessert enthusiasts can buy decent frozen tangyuan all year round at their local 99 Ranch and other Asian grocery stores. Wang’s version is distinctive in part because her tangyuan are fully vegan — many old-school recipes call for the use of lard. And in addition to the most traditional flavors (red bean, peanut and, her favorite, black sesame), Wang has also added a nontraditional, Filipino-inspired ube filling to the lineup this year, using ube paste made by Filipino American chef Ace Boral of Oakland’s Baba’s House Kitchen.

Wang says selling the tangyuan as part of a kit is her way of providing some cultural education for her customers, too. When you buy a package of tangyuan from the grocery store, it might only come with very basic instructions on how to boil the glutinous rice balls. Wang’s kits, on the other hand, also come with a packet of brown sugar, ginger and goji berries and instructions for how to use them to prepare the sweet soup that the tangyuan are traditionally served in.

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Many Chinese families would already have these ingredients in their pantry, but for customers who are new to this holiday treat, Wang says she wants to provide “a window into how people usually eat [tangyuan] at home and share them with each other.”

“It’s a window into learning the culture of where something comes from,” Wang says.

The tangyuan soup kits from Annie’s T Cakes ($28 for a kit that includes 16 tangyuan) are available for preorder from now through Jan. 15. Pickup options are at Little Giant Ice Cream (1951 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) from Jan. 19–23 and at Baba’s House Kitchen (450 15th St., Oakland) from Jan. 20–21.

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