December 22 marks this year’s Winter Solstice. While it’s rarely more than a footnote on Western calendars, Winter Solstice (冬至), the shortest day of the year, is celebrated as a festival by many traditional Chinese families. It’s an occasion for family reunions and practically synonymous with a dessert dish called tangyuan, glutinous rice balls served in a sweetened syrup.
Two years ago in Hong Kong, I was able to spend a Winter Solstice reunion dinner with Alvin’s family in Hong Kong. My family doesn’t celebrate this particular holiday, so it was quite the eye-opening experience for me. I also got to meet all the members of his extended family, who had gathered at his grandma’s house in Kowloon City, to dine on copious amounts of seafood, including shrimp, abalone, crab, scallops, oysters and more.
And also experience the pace of weekend life in Hong Kong. Aunts squabbling over mahjong tiles, a Korean movie blasting in the living room, younger cousins running amuck. And of course, an endless bounty of dishes prepared for all. After all, what’s a Chinese gathering without food?
Tangyuan, or what the Hokkien call “in-a” (圓仔), symbolize “family reunions” (the Chinese word for reunion, 團圓, uses the same word). The balls themselves are made from glutinous rice flour, rolled into circular lumps, and then quickly boiled in water. In Southern Chinese fashion, they’re typically served a warm sweet ginger syrup thickened with rock sugar. Comfort food.
Thanks for hosting me, Chan family!