“SO WHAT DOES
THE LETTER ‘Q’ TASTE LIKE?”
I. Love. This. Stuff.
Everybody, girls especially, who has or shares an Asian background, loves this stuff. This stuff is so popular it’s practically in the freezer section in every respectable Asian grocery stores, big or small. This stuff is so unstoppable, that although originally meant to be eaten on a single Chinese holiday only, now is enjoyed all year round. People look for excuses to eat this stuff. Given that it’s warm, soft and sweet, it’s a comfort food for the mentally wounded. But then again, given that it’s a circle which symbolizes “wholeness” and “content”, it’s a must-item in Chinese weddings, too. Boyfriend dumped you, you eat this stuff. Getting hitched, you eat this stuff. You see what I mean?
This stuff is called tang-yuan (literally soup-circles), aka sticky rice balls.
Why do Asians love sticky rice balls so much? To add to your confusion, it all comes down the mystery of one single alphabetical letter – “Q“.
Asians love stuffs that are “Q“, and this, this is “very Q“.
I’m sorry, what the fuck am I talking about? I mean what does the letter “Q” taste like anyways! What does any letter taste like? But somehow, a particular, soft, slippery and chewy texture associated with things usually made with sticky rice flour, or tapioca flour ended up being tagged with the letter “Q”. And the only lacking but however upmost sincere answer I can give you is, perhaps because the letter Q looks like a ball… bouncing… happily… Q~ Q~. You see that? No? Well, that’s the best I’m ever gonna get.
But enough Sesame Street. Let’s talk about real sesames.
First of all it’s important to know that there are many applications with sticky rice balls. They come petite and cute like tiny gnocchi (like here!), served in sweet dessert soups made with red beans or etc. They come fried and drenched in peanut sugar, served as previously mentioned, a popular good-omen wedding desserts. They even come savoury, stuffed with ground pork and served in hot broth flavoured with fried shallots, Chinese celery and white pepper. But the most notorious of them all, the one ball to rule them all is, zhi-ma tang-yuan. Large sticky rice balls stuffed with sweet and molten black sesame pastes.
That stuff is crazy, like your-heart-may-lack-brightness-and-cheer-if-you-didn’t-like-it kind of crazy. You sink your teeth in an ivory-white pillow of mystery (QQ!), and outbursts a steam of black lava that fills your taste buds with explosive black sesame-ness. Crazy. So understandably, on the eve of this Chinese New Year, when all stores big or small were closed on us (yes, you can buy this almost anywhere especially here…), we found our legs anxiously twitching for this stuff. And so, I made my own. Well, sort of.
Oh you think it’s just rubbing sticky rice flour and water together? Oh no. Don’t be rude. There’s knowledge and wisdom in making a good sticky rice dough, which is elaborately explained in the recipe. But more importantly, this is not zhi-ma tang-yuan you say. It’s… inverted. Well yes, yes it is. Why, because did I mention I can literally buy the original stuff downstair (and so can you from every Chinatown)? So it’s only logical that I make a home-friendly version, a I-need-this-like-now-!-version, that is 80% texturally and 99% flavour-wise identical to the original stuff which has filling that involves lard and a substantial amount of chilling. See? It’s a very realistic circumstance, perhaps the only kind, that I’d imagine you’ll be under when you actually want to make your own (or… if you live in the middle of nowhere and strongly disagrees, then we’ll talk later…).
And yes, you’ll want to make your own. There’s something very settling in know that I’ll always be in close proximity with these shiny and slippery balls swirling in a lava of black sesames, soft… chewy… and slides down my throat like silk. It’s kind of security that only a fancy home-alarm system can provide, except that this tastes delicious. Oh yes, I’m afraid the best way to explain is, it’s very QQ.
Servings: 4 to 5
I like sticky rice flour from Thailand (and believe me they know their sticky rice), but Bob’s Red Mill makes them, too (although I’ve never used them so I can’t say if they are exactly the same). Isn’t it crazy nowadays everything’s available online… By the way, the other name “glutinous rice” (which I’ve used before…) is very misleading as all rices are actually, gluten-free.
So, why use hot water first, then cold water for the dough? Because sticky rice flour is gluten-free and therefore will not “bond” like wheat flour does with water. The hot water is meant to slightly cook the sticky rice flour, so a cohesive dough can be formed. Otherwise with just cold water, the dough will break apart easily like “chalk” and crack when it’s frozen. But, now that we already have a cohesive dough, why cook a small part of dough then knead it back into the mother-dough? OK, you actually don’t have to do this, but the more you knead a cooked sticky rice-dough, the more “QQ/chewy” it gets! And we like QQ! It will only take you 5 minutes tops, but will overall improve the texture and elasticity of your sticky rice balls.
- Sticky rice balls:
- 1 1/2 cup (180 grams) of sticky rice flour (this is my go-to brand), plus extra for dusting
- 1/4 cup (33 grams) of powdered sugar
- 1/3 cup + 1 1/2 tbsp (100 grams) of simmering water
- 2 1/2 tbsp (35 grams) of vegetable oil
- 1~2 tbsp of cold water
- Black sesame sugar: (this is more than you’ll need but keep the extra in the fridge for next time)
- 1/2 cup (65 grams) of black sesame seeds
- 1/2 cup (95 grams) of granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup (95 grams) of dark brown sugar
To make the black sesame sugar: I’ve talked about toasting black sesame seeds in a skillet before, and this time we’re gonna do it in the oven.
Preheat the oven 400ºF/200ºC. Rinse the black sesames clean under running water (because they can be sandy sometimes), drain well then scatter them on a baking sheet. Spread them out as evenly as your can, then place inside the oven. Every 3~4 min, stir them with a spoon to ensure even heating (the water should completely evaporate in a few min), and toast for 15 ~ 17 min. You can’t tell if they are browned or not so the best way to check is to rub a seed in between your fingers. If the seed only breaks off its skin but doesn’t “shatter”, it needs more time. But if the seed crushes and shatters easily into small grains, and smells nutty and fragrant, then it’s done. They will also kind of smoke up a bit in the end, too. Once the seeds are properly toasted, immediately transfer to a cool plate to prevent burning.
Let the seeds cool off completely, then mix it with the granulated sugar and dark brown sugar. In two batches (crowding will risk turning the mixture into sesame butter), grind/pulse the mixture in a spice grinder (or this trick!) until finely ground. The mixture should resemble super-fine cornmeals. Coarsely ground black sesames can be unpleasant in texture. Keep the mixture in an air-tight container in the fridge until needed.
To make the sticky rice balls: Mix sticky rice flour and powdered sugar inside a large bowl. Bring a pot of water to a simmer (you should see bubbles going up fast from the sides/bottom of the pot but isn’t boiling yet). Pour 1/3 cup + 1 1/2 tbsp (or 100 grams to make your life easier!) of hot water into the flour mixer, and stir with a fork. You should see large and small lumps throughout but no dough yet. Once it’s cooled enough to handle, add the vegetable oil and 1 tbsp of cold water, then knead the dough together with your hand. The dough should have just enough moisture to be soft, smooth and pliable, but not sticky. If it’s too dry and hard to come together, add another 1/2 tbsp ~ 1 tbsp of water. If it’s sticking to your hand, add a bit more sticky rice flour.
Break 1/5 of the dough off and pat it into a flat disk (for faster cooking). Microwave that small piece of dough on high for 40~50 seconds (watch it while you do it) until it’s cooked and become semi-translucent (it will expand in the microwave then deflate once you remove it). The cooked dough will be ver hot, so work it back into the mother-dough with a fork first. Once cooled enough to handle, knead the entire dough until very smooth, and that the cooked dough is completely incorporated back. Again, the dough shouldn’t be sticky. If it is at this point, work in a bit more sticky rice flour into it.
You can wrap the dough with plastic wrap and keep in the fridge for up to 2 days.
Rolle a piece of the dough into a long strip, then cut into small segments about 1 tsp each (you should be careful not to make them too big otherwise they won’t cook properly), then roll each segments into small balls. If not cooking immediately, roll them in some sticky rice flour and keep frozen in an air-tight bag (no need to defrost before cooking). Bring a pot of water to boil, then add the sticky rice balls. Stir them gently to prevent sticking to the bottom of the pot, and keep the water boiling on medium heat. Lots of people say they’re done when they float to the top of the water, but I disagree. I think they need 2 min more (3 min if cooking straight from the freezer) after they float to the top, and are done when they swell up in size (about 1/3 bigger than the original size), otherwise they’ll be dense and doughy to chew.
Once done, remove them with a slotted spoon. Add a few tbsp of black sesame sugar on top and mix. The sugar will melt and become thick and saucy (I kept the black sesame sugar cornstarch-free because I want it to be application-friendly (to sprinkle on pancakes for example), but if you want it thicker when it melts, add 1/4 tsp of cornstarch to every 1 tbsp of black sesame sugar before adding the hot sticky rice balls). Serve immediately.