Celebrate Winter Solstice with Sweet and Sticky Rice Balls

The days begin to grow incrementally longer after the winter solstice on Tuesday, December 21. In celebration, we asked Shuobi Wu, founder of Lineage Ceramics, to share a recipe. Shuobi comes to Vancouver from Teoswa, China, where the traditional Winter Solstice treat of his childhood was sticky sweet rice balls. Read on for Shuobi’s evocative recounting of the solstice tradition and instructions on how to make these tasty little festive treats in your own home…

By Shuobi Wu | Teoswa is a place that never lacks in festivals and reasons to celebrate — especially when it comes to tradition. For years, Dongzhi, sometimes called Winter Solstice, has been one of my favourite holidays at home. Much of it has to do with the family tradition to make sweet sticky rice balls together around our dining table.

The Teochew winter is often cold in its own unexpected ways, with a humid southern climate that gives the wind a slithery chill. Every family stays indoors much earlier before the sunset. My brother and I always light up the entire house right around sunset and try to wrap ourselves up with every blanket we can find. At this time, Mom has this shaky but loud “winter opera voice” that riffs. She would try to hide it and encourage us to move around, but the riffs always gave it away every time. Except on the day of Dongzhi.

I can still remember the excitement we had when mother brought back bags of sticky rice flour on the day of Dongzhi. On that day, we would prepare fruits, chicken, fish and pork, light up the incense and pray to our ancestors. Then, at night, we would start making the sweet sticky rice balls. All the mixing bowls were dug out, pots on the stove. “It’s ball rolling time!”, mom would say. And we would all be out of our blanket cocoons.

My favourite part has always been rolling the balls. Mom is meticulous about her ball art and wanted them to all be the same size — usually the size of your index finger. But I always take a large chunk and turn them into the size of a golf ball and one time even a tennis ball. She was infuriated and would say, “Well, you will be eating them all because no one else is gonna.” And then, minutes later, this mild, harmless family dining table activity would turn into an indoor snowball fight. My brother and I would start tossing doughs at each other and eventually some dough and powder would land on our parents’ face.

Funny thing, later on I actually learned that the Dongzhi rice balls are supposed to be in different sizes to represent different individuals in the family that come together during this winter holiday. I told my mom over the phone and she laughed and laughed hard. “It’s okay. Everything and everyone eventually is the same,” she tried to cover it up.

I remember there were also those red balls (though the red in our traditional prayer is much closer to a rose or hibiscus pink). They were much rarer. And I almost never got to touch them – mom would do all the red balls (probably because she didn’t want any tennis ball incidents). Once the freshly made rice balls are brought into the pot, the next game starts. The red ball scoops. There are usually only 5 or 6 of the red balls in the pot of hundreds. So whoever gets a red ball in their first scoop would be the lucky one in the family. A piece of red for luck and a bowl of white for purity. Each one of us usually ended up finishing 3 bowls. Because on this chilly winter night in the south, this hot, sweet, chewy dessert brings warmth to our body and to the whole house.

The Recipe

There are usually two styles of southern sticky rice balls. Ones with fillings and ones without. The ones with fillings are definitely much more popular and tastier so we’ll introduce a recipe for the dessert with fillings.

Here’s how you can make it (serving 2):

300g glutinous rice flour, or go slightly above to help with mixing
Small amount of rice flour or tapioca starch to dust your tray
150ml room temperature water
Some beetroot juice (for the red balls!)
150g sesame seeds or peanuts
4-5 tablespoons of brown sugar (or adjust to your own taste)
50g of butter, or traditionally lard is also used
Optionally, some coconut milk to add more flavour to the soup

Step 1
Toast your sesame seeds or peanuts using a frying pan on your stove top at medium heat. Keep stirring for 10 minutes or until they are fragrant. Transfer to a dish and let it cool. You can also place them into the oven at 350F for about 15 minutes to achieve the same effect.

Step 2
When the nuts can be moved about with your hands, place them onto a food processor and mix in half of the brown sugar. Grind them until the mixture turns into a paste-like texture.

Step 3
Add butter (or lard) to your mixture and mix fully. Put this mixture aside.

Step 4
Save a small portion of the glutinous rice flour in a ramekin and put the remaining into a mixing bowl. Pour 100ml water into the mixing bowl while stirring with a spatula. Then start kneading with your hands. If you see the mixture is too dry, add a little bit of water and knead again. If the dough is getting too wet or sticky, add more flour. Repeat this process until you reach a smooth, soft dough that is not sticky and has no cracks. In the meantime, if you want the red balls, take a small chunk of the dough while kneading and add beetroot juice little by little instead of water with the same process.

Step 5
Once the dough forms nicely, divide the dough into small pieces. You can make as many or as few balls as you want. For the dough that contains fillings, aim for the size of an inch or more. For those who prefer without, ½ inch is usually good.

Step 6
Pre-dust your tray with rice flour or starch. Then make an indent in each dough ball with your thumb and add your fillings. Then gently push the dough upwards and seal the ball at the top. If a crack happens, wet it with water in your hand and roll it gently until it turns into a ball shape. Place all the balls onto your tray.

Step 7
Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Add the rice balls and gently stir to prevent sticking at the bottom of the pot. Bring to medium heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.

During the process, try not to let the water boil vigorously in case the dough tears apart. The rice balls will more or less float and the skins almost translucent when they are ready. You can add in the remaining brown sugar as well as coconut milk to bring more taste to the soup!

That’s it!

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For those who don’t want the hassle: you may also find this delicious holiday dessert at some of the local Cantonese-style dessert shops such as Sweet Honey Dessert and SnackShot. Each shop brings their own take of this traditional dish with unique flavours and fillings. Enjoy!

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