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it comes as no surprise

Recipe: chinese sweet red bean rice balls

a great start to any day

If you’ve been reading this blog for longer than six months, you can probably deduce that it snows here in Colorado. Ever heard of Vail? Breckenridge? Beaver Creek? Right on. For some reason, every stinking time it snows, a local will invariably tweet, “I can’t believe it’s snowing again!” Dear Incredulous Persons of Colorado, it’s going to do that (you know, the snowing thing). That’s why I live here. And we did get a lovely 7 inches of snow on our deck overnight. On days when there is fresh snow and NO wind, you’d best get out there into the wild blue awesome pronto because it just doesn’t get better than that.

it was snowing and sunny at the same time

jeremy looks toward mount audubon

time to peel off the skins and head down

from 10,600+ feet

But it *did* get better. We have a good friend visiting from out of town on business. When Aaron’s work was done, we joined him in the afternoon to do a little exploring around downtown Boulder. We grabbed some nibbles at happy hour, then visited Boxcar Coffee to kill a little time before moving on to The Pinyon for an excellent dinner. I finally tried the Pnyn Burger and now I have a crush on it. Kaweah was overjoyed when she discovered we had brought home yet another house guest.

serving up cowboy coffee

jeremy’s latte

the pinyon makes a damn fine burger

Our weather created a little excitement for Aaron seeing as he lives in mono-seasonal Southern California (okay, okay – they really do have TWO seasons). We’re hitting 11°F overnight and all of our trees are blanketed in white as if they had forgotten to take off their Halloween costumes. My food cravings are strongly coupled with the weather. As you can imagine, all I can think of are stews and soups. But not all of them are savory. My favorite traditional Chinese dessert is a boiled pillow of mochi dough filled with sweet red bean paste.

sweet rice flour, red bean paste, brown sugar, ginger

i actually prefer this glutinous rice flour

Grandma knew it was my favorite and she made these sweet rice balls from time to time when I was a little kid. I’d come home from pre-school or kindergarten, change into my play clothes, and then sit on the counter next to her while she worked the dough into these bite-sized pastries. I’d sneak a little sweet red bean paste. Sometimes we were silent while she worked and I watched. Other times we talked about silly things that were important to a 4-year old. Then I’d forget about the sweet rice balls after: lunch, our walk around the neighborhood together, my nap, Kris coming home from elementary school, and dinner with the whole family. I’d forget until Grandma brought out these steaming bowls of sweet soup with soft white rice balls floating in them. I preferred the red bean paste filling. Kris liked the black sesame paste filling. Grandma made both.

mix the flour and water together

the dough should be silky and not sticky

In college and beyond, I could always find these sweet treats in the frozen section of Asian markets. It was easy enough to plop them into boiling water and have a bowl of nostalgia within minutes. It was more than just comfort food. It was Grandma’s love.

It’s been nearly six months since my Grandma passed away and I still catch myself thinking that I’m going to see her soon, or that I should call and say hi. In my brain like a habit, I think of her as still there… or at least here with me and in my heart. When I prepare those dishes that I watched her make countless times, I replay what I saw as a child and it is as if we’re making Chinese dumplings or sweet red bean rice balls together. The dough can be difficult at times, but I stick with it because Grandma was an infinite well of patience.

cut into 12 pieces and roll into balls

flatten the dough and fill with sweet red bean paste

So it’s that time of year again when I’ll enjoy a hot bowl of these sweet red bean rice balls to chase the chill away after a day out in the snow. Making them requires only slightly more effort than purchasing them. More than that, I think it keeps my connection to my roots and my grandmother strong. [Even though the flour is called glutinous rice flour, there is no actual gluten in it. Glutinous is just an adjective to describe how ridiculously sticky this can get when cooked.]

formed and waiting to jump into the hot tub (okay, boiling water)

a refreshing ginger and brown sugar soup base

Grandma would serve these sweet rice balls in a bowl of sweet fermented rice soup (which I don’t know how to make, but my mom does!). I prefer a lighter soup base of ginger and brown sugar. You can also fill the balls with sweet black sesame paste, sweet mung bean paste, sweet peanut paste, or leave them plain. If you make them plain (i.e. no filling) roll them into 1/2-inch diameter balls which are much smaller than the filled versions. Serve it hot because the mochi texture is best at that temperature.

my favorite childhood treat

Chinese Sweet Red Bean Rice Balls
[print recipe]

1/2 cup glutinous rice flour
2-3 oz. water
1/4 cup sweet red bean (azuki) paste
2 cups water
3 tbsps brown sugar
4 slices fresh ginger

Mix the glutinous rice flour and the 2-3 ounces of water together and form into a ball. The dough should be silky smooth, not sticky. Divide the dough into 12 equal pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Flatten a ball to 1/4-inch thickness with your fingers by pressing it into a shallow bowl-like shape. Place a teaspoon (or more, depending on the size of the dough) in the center of the dough. Carefully fold the dough over the paste and seal the ball by pressing the dough on itself. Be gentle as the dough tears easily. Repeat for the remaining dough. Fill a medium saucepan halfway with water and bring to a boil. Drop the rice balls into the boiling water. They are ready when they float to the surface. While the rice balls are cooking, combine 2 cups of water with the brown sugar and ginger in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. To serve, strain the rice balls and place 3-4 in a bowl (for 3-4 servings) and ladle a half cup or more of the sweet ginger soup over the rice balls. Serve hot. Makes 12 sweet red bean rice balls. Serves 3-4.

32 nibbles at “it comes as no surprise”

  1. J says:

    yum. we always eat these with red bean soup. because you can never have too much red bean :)

  2. April says:

    I wanted to let you know that since moving recently to Beijing (from the US) I find your Chinese recipes and description of products incredibly helpful for relearning how to cook in a foreign country. So thank you! Also your pictures are lovely and make me homesick, in a good way, for Park City.

  3. Debbie says:

    I have never had these but they look so delicious!

  4. Lisa says:

    I eat those in the winter more often. Reading this post makes me miss Mom and Kris very much. But we will see Ben and Emily later in the afternoon. Have a wonderful ski day.

  5. amy says:

    I LOVED this stuff growing up. It was comforting yet sweet. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Belinda @zomppa says:

    That is. A lot of snow. A lot. I miss xc skiing!!! Makes me want to move where it’s colder again. These look so delightful!

  7. Eva @ Eva Bakes says:

    I loved eating these as a child, so thank you for the recipe! I will have to try making them soon. These really are the perfect snack for a cold day.

  8. Lisa says:

    My mom used to make these too but she used a cube of the hard brown Chinese sugar (the kind that looks like candy bars) instead of the red bean paste. Hmm… comfort food. What do you do with the leftover bean paste???

  9. Diana Banana says:

    hmm, just bought a bag of the green label plastic bagged rice flour to make daifuku, my red bean paste is cooling on the stove right now and i definitely made too much. i guess i know what i’m doing with the leftover ingredients!!

    did your grandma or mom ever make soup balls out of the glutenous rice dough? it’s these exact balls but not stuffed, and it goes into a very elaborate soup with a gazillion ingredients that i don’t know, except it was heavy on cilantro. just the thought of that soup makes my insides warm and cozy :)

  10. Danielle says:

    Yumm! Tang yuan are one of all time favorite dishes from Asia. My favorite are filled with black sesame paste (I love black sesame in anything really–especially baozi). Thank you so much for the recipe! I’ve only ever bought the premade sort at the Asian markets.

  11. Barb says:

    Oh I do love Colorado and skiing! Your photos make me soooo jealous – nothing is better than skiing in Colorado! Have a wonderful, beautiful winter!

  12. Lily says:

    Yum! I loved the plain ball and mung bean variations growing up. I just had a thought- are the balls similar to the deep fried sesame covered ones found at dim sum and Asian deli joints (minus the sweet ginger sauce of course)? I know you’re not a fan of frying but these have got me thinking about them too!

  13. Elle says:

    I’m with you on this one, Jen! The sweet red bean rice balls get me every time.

  14. Andrew says:

    I’ve been reading this blog for I’d say at least 3 years now and I’m envious every year when your posts about the snowfall comes- It’s hot and dry where I’m at right now… #californiaboyproblems

  15. Margie says:

    What is more comforting than ones grandmother, especially if she shared her love of the kitchen…
    One of these days I will cook some of these. I know I will. My local grocer, Central Market, stocks these cute little beans.

  16. Allie says:

    Chinese cooking posts, definitely my favorites. I love this. Which reminds me, I had been searching for the “preserved vegetable” mustard green you’ve posted about for at least a year and never saw it in any Asian markets – and I found it the other day!! I rejoiced and bought two, and now I’m gonna make fried rice with it.

  17. shelley says:

    I am so going to make these. I was just at a party with red bean filled cupcakes and they just made me want these. I have the glutinous rice flour that I use for radish cakes, nos I just need red bean paste. How hard is that to make?


  18. Nicola says:

    You provide me with an ongoing supply of recipes I want to try in the future, and immediately ‘delicious’ treats for my eyes.

  19. Shirley says:

    Love your pictures, they are breathtaking! Colorado is breathtaking! and Thank you for all the great recipes.

    God Bless!

  20. Miss Adriennely says:

    Ah, these are the best kind of chinese dessert! Simple and delicious. :)

  21. Virginia says:

    I THINK this was my favorite dessert growing up — except I’ve never had it in a soup before, i’ve only had them plain and dusted with a little bit more of the rice flour. They sell them in the asian stores around here as little buns, but the color is more of a dark sage-y green (although I’ve seen the plain white ones as well)….do you know if they’re the same thing?

    either way I’ll be trying this one (:

  22. caiming says:

    thank you for sharing! this conjures fond memories of my grandmother as well.

    @diana banana: i know exactly what you mean, i remember strips of daikon and pork in the savory version

  23. Sherry says:

    I generally like the savory version of this better but our family always used a sweet peanut filling whenever we did the dessert version…

    Growing, I had these so often, I don’t really like them all that much any more. :\

  24. J2Kfm (Malaysian Food & Travel Blog) says:

    Tang yuen! Yeah… you know we have always been looking forward to the Winter Solstice season back when we were kids. Where we were required to help in the rolling process, and usually Mum and Grandma did the plain version. Hence we have coloured balls of reds, yellows and sometimes green.
    Nowadays, though our help is not required, still … the moment when each of us have a bowl of these in our hands and chewing away while talking over life and such, it’s pure bliss.

  25. malisa says:

    my mom always made this the lazy way with peanuts sprinkled on top. but she did take the time to make her own caramelize sugar syrup.

    i love glutinous rice flour. i use to it make the fried sesame balls filled with red bean paste.

  26. Laura says:

    I am going to make these tomorrow, I love red bean paste, I once had a granita that had it at the bottom, simple but incredible dessert.

    I felt the same after my grandmother died, I would often feel her presence around me, it was good. 21 have passed so I don’t think of her as often, but I miss her as much. She used to make a very thick pastry cream, cut it in rectangles and then fry it, yum!

  27. debbie says:

    Everytime I visit your site I am inspired. Thank you.

  28. Andrea @ Fork Fingers Chopsticks says:

    Love the photos and the introduction to this amazing dessert soup. Besides homemade, any recs on a place to try this in the Denver/Boulder area?

  29. jenyu says:

    April – wow, you should be able to get some great food there!! :)

    Belinda – that’s not EVEN a lot of snow ;)

    Lisa – you can do lots of things with the leftover red bean paste: strawberry daifuku mochi, sweet bean springs, red bean ice cream (these can be found in my recipes section)

    Diana Banana – yes, I mentioned in the post that you can make the plain ones too.

    Danielle – yeah, I think homemade is sooo much better than the store-bought!

    Barb – thank you!

    Lily – Yes, I think they’re the same or at least similar. Actually, I have a recipe somewheres… perhaps I’ll have to try making some?

    Andrew – you just need to drive to the Sierra for your snow! Go to Mammoth or Tahoe :)

    Allie – whooo!!!

    shelley – I don’t know because I’ve never made it before. I always buy the canned stuff red bean paste.

    Virginia – the kind you’re talking about are mochi. These are boiled (and wet) compared to what you’re thinking of. Although the mochi are also good :)

    J2Kfm – that’s awesome. Such good memories.

    Laura – grandmas are special like that xo

    debbie – thank you!

    Andrea – I don’t know of any places that serve this, although you can buy them frozen in various grocery stores (Asian Seafood Market in Boulder, POM in Broomfield, H Mart in Aurora).

  30. Diane says:

    I’ve had this in Thailand but with just plain balls not stuffed – I always thought it was Thai! I guess, more properly, it is probably Thai-Chinese there. Yummmy…

  31. Simple and Authentic Chinese: Dessert (Part 2) « bbqrebs says:

    […] supposed to go down like this (the recipe is about halfway down the page), but making red bean glutinous rice balls is a lot […]

  32. Hilary says:

    I love your website and i have been looking for a recipe for this. it looks very good. can’t wait to make and eat it!!!!!!!!!!

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