My absolute favorite part of food are the memories that they call up. Whether it is the situation that you first tasted a dish and/the people that you eat it with, it is always so much more fun and meaningful when there are stories to tell. This recipe is the dish that I associate with my wonderful father. When I was growing up, my mom was the main cook of the family. My dad very rarely cooked. It has always been a passion for her and she was just better at it. But she never ever made sweets. That was my dad’s area. My dad has a bit of a sweet tooth, well as much as a Chinese person could have. These amazing sticky rice balls would make very rare but oh so special appearances whenever my dad got it is his head that he and I should have a treat. They are my absolute favorite.
The luscious filling of these little balls is made from super fragrant sesame seeds, sugar, bitter tangerine peels, savory animal fat and finally the gentle perfume of rose petals. All this is wrapped within a simple glutinous rice flour dough and then boiled in a rose tea to make the perfect little bouncy bundles that fairly burst with flavor in your mouth. The rarity that these sticky rice balls made an appearance came from the very organic way that my dad would make the filling. Instead of purchasing lard from the grocery store, my dad would gradually store up the leftover drippings of the braised pork dishes my mom made. To that he would add tangerine peel whenever he remembered to save some from eaten tangerines. I distinctly remember a peculiar looking jar of lard and tangerine peels in the fridge that would very slowly get higher and over several months time finally grow be enough for the recipe.
The Chinese are not really known for their love of sweets and as a result dessert recipe are not always very well known. I personally think that this perference for savory flavors have created a library of recipes that balance out the sweetness with contrasting saltiness, bitterness and interesting textures. A lot of attention is also paid to the other senses; recipes often include ingredients that are incredibly fragrant, creating a multi-dimentional sensory experience. True to this tradition, my dad’s sticky rice balls are a wonderful play in contrasts — savory to sweet, bitter to fragrant, soft to crunchy.
Unlike my dad who gradually collected pork lard for his rice ball, I am using store bought duck fat in my recipe. Before you jump on me for using that hear me out. Duck fat is the healthiest animal fat around, so in moderation it isn’t bad for you. If you prefer lard that can be used too. I haven’t tested ghee, but I imagine that would be a great alternative. My dad also said that butter would work. As a child, my absolute favorite part of this recipe was the bitter bite that the tangerine peel added. This is the part of the recipe that make these rice ball so unique. Many people make this dish with sesame seeds but I rarely see citrus peel added. You can use any citrus in that family but do not use oranges. Oranges will not work here, they lack the complexity that the tangerine peel brings.
Sticky rice balls are traditionally eaten all over the country and often make an appearance during the most important Chinese holidays. In Sichuan and specifically my hometown of YiBin, rice balls are typically boiled in plain water and served the morning Chinese New Year. It has a lot of cultural significance and the round shape stands for family unity. The fillings come in many varieties from sesame seed to lotus paste, and even peanut butter. This version is my favorite filling. I am a big fan of marmalade and thus the added bitterness and fragrance of the tangerine peel is so absolutely perfect. The rose petals and rose water add a background roundness that wonderfully ties everything together.
If you are interested in some other wonderful Chinese recipes to round out your New Years feast, check out the links below!
Keep scrolling! I have a giveaway for a wonderful cookbook below!
B L A C K S E S A M E S T I C K Y R I C E B A L L S W/ T A N G E R I N E + R O S E (汤 圆)
makes 16 balls
for the sticky rice wrappers
6 oz thai glutinous rice flour + more for kneading
3/4 cup water
for the sesame filling
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds
1 1/2 tablespoon black sesame seeds
3 tablespoons raw sugar
1 1/2 dried rose petals
2 tablespoons tangerine peel, use a knife or swiss peeler
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon rose water
3 tablespoons duck fat or lard, softened
make the sticky rice wrappers
In a kettle, boil the water. Add the rice flour to a medium sized mixing bowl. Slowly add the hot water to the rice flour, stirring the whole time with chopsticks or a fork. Depending on your flour you may not need all of the water. This is the sort of dough that will improve as you get familiar with how the end result should feel. At this stage you are looking for the flour to get shaggy and come together in medium sized clumps. If you touch a clump it should have a very slight dampness if you squeeze but should feel quite dry with a light touch.
Flour a board with rice flour, turn out your loose mixture. Knead to bring the mixture together. If the mixture is sticking to your hand, dust with more rice flour. It should have a slight tackiness but not stick to our hand or the board. Knead until smooth. Place in a bowl and cover with a damp cloth. Allow to rest for at least 30 minutes.
make the sesame filling
In a small pan, toast the sesame seeds over medium heat for 4-5 minutes. Keep a very careful eye on them because they burn easily. They are done when the white seeds have darkened slightly. The kitchen should smell of fragrant sesame. In a mortar and pestle, add the sesame seeds while they are still warm. Use a circular motion and a gentle pounding to start breaking up the seeds. Add the sugar and continue to pound. You are looking for an uneven texture of fully ground and partially ground seeds. The seeds will start to release their oils into the sugar. After a minute more of pounding, add the rose petals, tangerine peel, and salt. Pound for another minute or two. The goal with the tangerine peel is to get it to release its oils. I like to leave some of the peel whole in the final mixture. Add the rose water and mix in the duck fat. Place in the fridge to harden for at lease 30 minutes. The stiffer the filling is, the easier it will be use when wrapping the rice balls. This filling will keep for a long time in the fridge.
make the rice balls
Divide the dough in half, take the first half and on our board use both hands to roll it out to 1 inch diameter. Cut in half and then cut each half in half again. And then finally cut each quarter into half again. You will end up with 8 segments. Roll each into a ball and cover with a damp cheese cloth. Take one ball and use your thumb to press a little bowl out of the ball. Gently press your thumb around the bowl shape to create space for the filling. Take a heaping half teaspoon of the filling put it in the middle of the wrapper. Press into a crescent shape and the gently take corner together to round out the shape. You can then either roll them again in your palms until the folds mostly disappear of you can put if fold side down onto your board, cup with your hand and quickly move in a circular motion. The ball will move freely under your palm. I find this technique easier to control. I sometimes press too hard when I roll in my palm. Once the folds are mostly gone, finish rounding them out between your hands. Repeat with the rest of the dough.
In a pan large enough to fit the sticky balls, fill with water 3/4 full, bring to a boil. Gently add the rice balls, stir to keep them from sticking, bring back to a boil, turn down the heat to medium. Boil for 3-5 minutes until the balls float to the top. Add a handful of rose petals into the pot. Cook for another 30 seconds. Serve immediately with the ladles of the fragrant rose liquid.
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