Winter Solstice Isn’t Complete Without a Bowl of Tang Yuan Soup

Steaming, delicious tang yuan soup. (Jess Eng)

Every December, my family and I drive into San Francisco’s Chinatown for our annual winter solstice dinner. My paternal grandmother, decked out in a red fleece jacket and beanie, leads us to New Woey Loy Goey, a dimly lit restaurant beneath Jackson Street only accessible by staircase. In the dead of winter, the restaurant is remarkably warm inside, and tables are occupied by locals ordering the daily seafood special from the fish tank. Seated around a corner table, our family knows a bowl of chewy tang yuan atop peppery broth will complete the night.

Those familiar with tang yuan may picture glutinous balls shaped like miniature snowballs in sweet soup. The sweet tooth in me indulges in these black-sesame and peanut-filled balls whenever I have the chance. But my heart truly belongs to the salty tang yuan soup served on Dec. 21 in commemoration of Dong Zhi (冬至), known as winter solstice.

When I’m home for the holidays, I slurp up an embarrassing number of bowls, rich in shrimp and chicken flavor and served with shiitake mushrooms, crunchy cabbage and savory lap cheong, or Chinese sausage. The broth, steamy and thick from hours of boiling, clings to the tang yuan in my soup spoon, forming the perfect bite. A dinner with tang yuan soup is a not-to-miss occasion, and I, along with the rest of my family, would drop any obligation in a heartbeat to eat at.

This year, I wonder how my family, now miles apart, will celebrate Dong Zhi. When in person, our family can visit Chinatown or gather in our grandmothers’ kitchens to taste their own versions of tang yuan. At the thought of missing such an important celebration, I realize I have so many questions about this holiday and my family traditions, specifically: How can I mimic my grandmothers’ soup recipes? So I reach out.

The first response comes from my father’s mother, who sends me a trove of voice recordings and pictures of her tang yuan soup through WeChat, our primary communication platform these days. In her recordings, she orders me to boil the chicken bones and skim the fat from the broth, and to absolutely not forget the white pepper garnish. Photos of her tang yuan, blurred into indistinguishable pixels by her shaky hands, make me chuckle at our generational divide.

Mushrooms, Chinese sausage and napa cabbage help give the soup its flavor. (Jess Eng)

The second message comes from my mother’s mother, who dictates her recipe to my mother as she supervises her cooking in our tiny kitchen. My mother then translates the recipe from Taishanese to English into digestible steps and forwards me the directions via email. I marvel over how every step of her recipe is straightforward and precise—slice the mushrooms ¼ inch, roll dough balls into banana-shaped logs for easy cutting, boil the broth for 15 minutes—and how these instructions must travel through two brains in order to reach my own.

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I spend several days untangling the differences between my two grandmothers’ recipes. I spot small discrepancies between them; perhaps they are insignificant, but I want to understand what counts as important. Does the dried shrimp make a difference? Can we substitute daikon radish for turnips? Fresh chicken bones or boxed broth?

In most cases, I opt for the harder-to-find ingredients and time-consuming steps. I want to make a soup most loyal to both my grandmothers’ visions, which means scouring multiple supermarkets for daikon radish and spending hours in the kitchen bouncing between burners and cutting boards in search of their holiday kitchen bliss.

Normally when winter arrives, my family celebrates this holiday separately with my two grandmothers. Now, bestowed with my family’s tang yuan recipes, I plan to bring my relatives together on a video call to honor this day, and dig into a dish that unites us. Dong Zhi falls on the longest night, after all, and we’ll need the company this winter.

Dough balls enter the soup! (Jess Eng)

Winter Solstice Dough Ball Soup

Serves 6–8

Soup Base

  • 4–4 ½ lbs of bone-in chicken (drumsticks, thighs, breasts)
  • 7 cups of water

Directions

  1. Put chicken drumsticks (skinned) and water in a large stockpot. Bring water to a boil and simmer on low for 2.5 to 3 hours.
  2. Strain the soup to remove the drumsticks and any other residue.
  3. Cool broth for 30 to 40 minutes, then cover the pot, and put in the refrigerator overnight. The fat should rise to the top.
  4. Skim fat from the top and save to use for dough ball soup.

Dough Ball Soup Ingredients

  • 3 cups of glutinous rice flour
  • 1¼ cups of water
  • ½ napa cabbage
  • 3 Chinese sausages
  • ½ large daikon radish (turnip)
  • ½ of large napa cabbage
  • 1 tablespoon of oil
  • 3 green onion stalks
  • ¼ cup dried shrimp, rinsed with water and soaked in water overnight
  • Cilantro, for garnish
  • White pepper (optional)
  • Shiitake mushrooms (optional)

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Directions

  1. Cut napa cabbage, mushrooms and daikon radish into small slices. Cut up Chinese sausage into ¼-inch-thick slices.
  2. In a separate big pot or wok, heat 1 tablespoon of oil. Once hot, pour in dried shrimp along with the water. Sauté for 2 minutes. Pour in soup and wait until it boils. Then add radish, napa cabbage and mushrooms into the broth and cook for 15 to 20 minutes. Add salt to taste.
  3. To form the dough balls, mix warm water with the glutinous rice flour. The mixture will be powdery at first, but continue mixing until the dough turns more firm and can be rolled into balls. You may need to add more flour or water slowly to get the right consistency. The dough should be firm and not too sticky.
  4. Prepare two or three plates for the formed dough balls. To make a perfectly round dough ball, form a tube and break off enough dough to roll balls approximately ¾ inch in diameter. Don’t make them too big as they will expand when cooked. Place each rolled ball onto a plate, making sure they don’t touch each other.
  5. Place the dough balls into water one by one. Do not drop them all at once as they will stick together.
  6. Boil for 5–10 minutes or until they float to the top. Drain the water and place dough balls immediately into the pot of soup with the vegetables. Bring back to a boil.
  7. Garnish bowls with cilantro, green onions and white pepper. Serve and enjoy while hot!