Friday, January 24, 2020

How to Make Glutinous Rice Balls for Chinese New Year

(This post was updated January 7, 2023.)

Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as it's known in China, starts soon so I'd like to wish you Xin Nian Kuai Le -- Happy New Year!  (In Mandarin, that's pronounced: sheen nee-en kwhy luh.)  This year, Spring Festival ushers in the Year of the Rabbit.  The picture below shows a rabbit that is part of a set of Chinese zodiac animals I bought in Xi'an, China, and is in a style of folk art that’s famous in that region.  (You can buy the set HERE.)

Picture showing the Rabbit, a Chinese zodiac animal
You can purchase my clipart set of these 12 Chinese zodiac animals HERE; source: The ESL Nexus
A traditional greeting for Chinese New Year is: Gong Xi Fa Cai (pronounced gohng shee fah tsy) -- May you be happy and prosperous!

There are many customs associated with Chinese New Year, which is also known as the Lunar New Year in other Asian countries.  Cleaning house, giving money in red envelopes to children, traveling to be with your family, setting off firecrackers, and displaying lanterns are some of the ways people celebrate the holiday.  Cooking special foods is also part of Chinese New Year and making glutinous rice balls is one of them.  You may be interested in my Chinese New Year Gift Guide, which gives you ideas to help you celebrate Spring Festival with your students.

How Cooking Chinese Rice Balls Helps ELLs Learn English

This is an activity I did for several years with my ELLs in Grades 4 - 8.  The content and language objectives were to teach them about Chinese New Year and to give them practice with how-to writing.  What we did was make tang yuan (pronounced: tahng you-en), which are glutinous rice balls with sweet fillings.  Typical fillings are black sesame paste, red bean (adzuki bean) paste, and peanut butter.  Traditionally, tang yuan are eaten at the end of Spring Festival.  I learned how to make them from a Chinese family I was very friendly with and who kind of adopted me into their family when I was working in China.

In addition to sharing an aspect of Chinese culture and doing a fun activity with my students, they also had to do a writing task, which was just as important.  As I explained and showed my students how to make the rice balls, and they followed my instructions to make some themselves, the students had to write down what they were doing.  After we finished, the students then had to write a paragraph that explained how to make tang yuan.  Their closing sentence stated whether or not they liked the food.  Some students did and wanted seconds and some students didn't and spit it out!  To evaluate their work, I used one of my regular writing rubrics.  (For a selection of rubrics, please see this resource.)  I was able to complete all the prep and cooking in a 45-minute class period.

Picture showing cooked glutinous rice balls in a blowl
Delicious tang yuan with black sesame paste filling; source: DepositPhotos

What You Need for the Activity

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To make tang yuan, you will need: a package of glutinous rice flour, sugar, sesame paste or peanut butter (if you are allowed to have peanuts in your school), and water.  You will also need an electrical hot pot, a medium-sized mixing bowl, a cutting board, a measuring cup, plus enough spoons and bowls for your students and yourself.  You can find glutinous rice flour at any Asian grocery store and it may even be available in the Asian section of your local supermarket.  But don't use regular flour in this recipe as that won't work at all!

How to Make the Rice Balls

Below are the directions for making the rice balls.  You can also use them to check that your students have written the steps in their how-to compositions in chronological order and included all the required steps.

1) Measure 1 cup of glutinous rice flour and put it into a mixing bowl. 
2) Add enough water, around 1/2 cup, to make dough that has the consistency of bread dough or is like the dough for drop cookies -- it should not be watery.  (Keep in mind that when I learned how to make this, my Chinese hosts did not use measuring cups.)  If the dough is too thin, just add more flour; if it is too thick and doesn't stick together, add a little more water. 
3) Divide the dough into little pieces that are about 1 inch in diameter.  Try not to make the balls larger because they won't cook well if they are too big.  Roll each piece into a ball.  This is something your students can do!  Make enough balls so each student in your class, and you, can try one.
4) Make an indentation in the middle of one ball and put a dab of sesame paste, peanut butter, or whatever you are using as a filling, there. 
5) Work the dough over the filling so it is completely covered by the dough. 
6) Roll the ball into a round sphere again. Put all the rice balls on the cutting board to keep them in one place for when they are ready to be cooked. 
7) Repeat this process for all the rice balls.  You might want to keep each type of filled rice ball separate, just so you know which is which when it comes time to eat them. 
8) Fill the hot pot with water and let it come to a boil.  While you are waiting, your students can be working on writing up their notes. 
9) Add a little sugar, to taste, to the water in the hot pot.  This is to make a sweet broth that accompanies the rice balls when they are eaten. 
10) When the water is boiling, carefully drop some of the rice balls into the boiling water.  They will sink to the bottom.  Do not put all the rice balls in the pot at once; they need space to cook properly. 
11) When the rice balls float to the top, and stay there, they are ready to eat.  This will probably take around 5 minutes. 
12) Scoop out the rice balls and put them bowls, one per bowl, along with a little broth.  Give the rice ball and broth to students and tell them to try it.  Tell the students to write down their reaction. 
13) Cook the remaining rice balls the same way and give them to the other students so everyone has a chance to try one.  Keep the water level high enough so the rice balls have room to float to the top of the hot pot.  If you are adding more water, you may want to also add more sugar. 
14) If there are rice balls left over, you can give them to anyone who wants another.  Make sure to try one yourself, too! 
15) For homework, you can have the students write a paragraph that gives instructions on how to make rice balls.

Additional Notes

I always enjoyed doing this activity and even my students who didn't like the rice balls enjoyed cooking them.  If you want to try using red bean paste and can’t find it in a local store, my Japanese brother-in-law recommends this brand.  This is the "fine" version and he uses the "coarse" version but I think this one is better because you won't have to mash up the beans like he does so you'll save time if using it in your class. 

As a substitute for peanut butter, you can probably use your favorite brand of tahini instead.  I’ve never tried making tang yuan with tahini but it should be okay.  However, since tahini is less thick than peanut butter, you’ll have to roll the balls quickly to make sure it doesn’t leak out.

For more information about traditional Chinese culture, check out these TpT resources: C is for China: An ABC book about China, Chinese New Year Writing and Reading Activities.  You might also like my Chinese New Year Word Search Puzzles

Hen Hao Chi (pronounced hun how chih) -- that is: Delicious!