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Sticky Rice Balls Three Ways (汤圆: 鲜肉, 芝麻, 菜猪油 | tang yuán: xiān ròu, zhī ma, cài zhū yóu)

33 best Lunar New Year foods include these sticky rice balls filled with sesame paste.
Photo by Betty Liu

Part of the fun of the New Year’s celebration is the preparation for and anticipation of the festivities. My mom’s tradition as a child was to lay out brand-new clothes for the New Year and make sticky rice balls. She told me that she was the rice-ball maker in her family. She would stay up late the night before New Year’s Eve to make black sesame sticky rice balls. She was the second youngest of six siblings and the best at shaping them. While I typically buy glutinous rice flour at a nearby Chinese grocery store, when my mom and dad were children, they made their own flour. Every year, they’d rent a special mortar and pestle and manually grind glutinous rice and water into a fine, powdery flour. The water, my dad said, is critical to making the flour super-fine. So, when I buy my own flour, I make sure to purchase one that is ground in a water mill.


Shanghainese enjoy rice balls in both sweet and savory preparations. I love both, so I included them here. All Shanghainese buns and pastries have simple identifiers for telling the difference between sweet and savory. Sweet versions are always round and smooth, while savory ones will have a tail hinting at the filling inside.


Makes 12 big rice balls; 6 servings

Meat filling:
4 tablespoons (75 g) ground pork
½ teaspoon dark soy sauce
½ teaspoon light soy sauce
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
1 teaspoon sugar
2 drops sesame oil
Pinch of ground white pepper
2 tablespoons Ginger-Scallion Water (see below)
2 tablespoons pi dong, diced
Sesame filling:
⅓ cup (45 g) black sesame seeds
1 tablespoon (10 g) white sesame seeds
¼ cup (50 g) sugar
1½ teaspoons dried Osmanthus petals, 桂花 gui hua
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons pork lard, duck fat, or butter
Greens filling:
½ teaspoon salt, plus more for the cooking water
½ pound (225 g) Chinese spinach, 油菜 yu choy, or other green, like baby bok choy
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon minced ginger
2 tablespoons pork lard
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Rice ball dough:
2 cups (250 g) water-based glutinous rice flour, plus more for dusting
1 cup (240 ml) warm water

Meat filling:

Step 1

Combine the pork, soy sauces, salt, wine, and sugar and, using chopsticks, stir in one direction until well combined. Add the sesame oil, white pepper, and ginger-scallion water and stir until the liquid is completely incorporated and the mixture resembles a paste. Add the pi dong and gently mix. Refrigerate until ready to assemble.

Sesame filling:

Step 2

Toast the black and white sesame seeds in a pan over low for 3 to 5 minutes, keeping an eye on them, as they can burn suddenly. Once toasted, the sesame seeds will be slightly darker in color, very fragrant, and easily crushable between your fingers.

Step 3

Grind the sesame seeds with a mortar and pestle while still warm (or use a food processor). When the seeds start to release their oils, add the sugar. Continue to grind for 1 minute. Add the dried Osmanthus and the salt. Grind for another 2 to 3 minutes, until mostly homogenous. Add 1 tablespoon of water and the lard, using a fork to combine thoroughly. Alternatively, this process can be done easily in a food processor: first grind the sesame seeds, then add the sugar, ½ teaspoon of the Osmanthus, and salt. Add the water and pork with a fork as above. Refrigerate to harden for 30 minutes—this will facilitate the assembly process.

Greens filling:

Step 4

In a pot of boiling water with a pinch of salt, blanch the yu choy until the greens are vibrant green, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer immediately to an ice-water bath. Drain and wring to remove excess water, then chop as finely as you can. Combine the greens with the sugar, ginger, salt, lard, and sesame oil until well combined. Refrigerate for 2 hours.

Rice ball dough:

Step 5

Make a well in the center of the rice flour. Stream in ½ cup (120 ml) of the warm water, mixing with chopsticks continuously until a loose mixture starts to come together. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead until a tacky (but not sticky) dough comes together. If the dough sticks to your hand, add more glutinous rice flour. If it’s too dry, add water, 1 teaspoon at a time. It should have a texture much like Play-Doh. Knead until smooth, about 3 minutes.

Step 6

Bring a pot of water to a boil over high. Pinch and roll 1 teaspoon of dough into a ball, then gently flatten into a disc. Boil it until the rice ball rises, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the rice ball with a slotted spoon and let cool slightly. Incorporate the cooked rice ball into the dough, kneading until completely incorporated and smooth. This extra step will make the dough super malleable and elastic, creating a silky soft and chewy texture when cooked. Set the dough aside and cover with plastic or with a damp towel. Let rest for 20 minutes.

Rice ball assemby:

Step 7

Divide the dough in half, and keep one half covered while you work. On a lightly floured surface, with your hands roll the dough into a log 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter. Divide it into 6 equal pieces (about 35 g each) and roll the pieces into balls. Cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap.

Step 8

Working with one dough ball at a time, use your thumb to press down the center while your fingers press the edges up into a bowl shape. Take 1 teaspoon of filling and place it in the middle of the wrapper. Close the edges. Wrap your right hand around and squeeze gently while drawing up the sides of the ball and slowly pinching the opening closed. If making meat balls, the traditional shape is a teardrop: Simply close the edges and pinch the dough off to make a teardrop shape. If making sesame balls, gently place the ball pinched side down, then roll quickly but lightly to smooth out. If making greens balls, shape into a rounded cylinder.

Step 9

Repeat with the rest of the dough. At this point, you can freeze the rice balls until just before you’re ready to serve or up to 3 months. They’ll also last in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for up to 1 day.

To cook the meat and greens rice balls:

Step 10

Fill a large pot with water to 1 inch (2.5 cm) below the rim and bring to a boil over high. Gently slide in up to 4 rice balls at a time, stirring gently to prevent sticking.

Step 11

Bring the water back to a gentle simmer, then keep the heat on medium-high to stay just below boiling—if you reach boiling the rice balls will overcook. Once the balls float, after about 5 minutes, simmer for another 5 to 6 minutes. If cooking from frozen, cook for an additional 2 minutes.

Step 12

Serve hot with some of the stock they cooked in—this stock isn’t meant to be slurped up, but is a way to keep the rice balls hot for consumption. Be careful when eating: The pi dong will become soupy, and we are often scalded when we eat these!

To cook the sesame rice balls:

Step 13

Fill a large pot with water to 1 inch (2.5 cm) below the rim and bring to a boil over high. Gently slide in up to 4 rice balls at a time, stirring gently to prevent sticking.

Step 14

Bring the water back to a gentle simmer, then keep the heat on medium-high to stay just below boiling—if you reach boiling the rice balls will overcook.

Step 15

Cook for 5 minutes, until the balls float to the top. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon of Osmanthus and cook for another 30 seconds. Serve hot, with sweet fermented glutinous rice wine, or with candied Osmanthus, or dried Osmanthus, or both, or none—the variations are endless.

Step 16

Ginger-Scallion Water: In a blender, combine 2 thin slices (about ½ ounce/15 g) fresh ginger, 2 scallions, and ½ cup (120 ml) of water and blend on high until puréed. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve and reserve the flavored water.

cover of the cookbook My Shanghai featuring a steamer with dumplings
Reprinted with permission from My Shanghai: Recipes and Stories from a City on the Water by Betty Liu, copyright © 2021 by Betty Liu. Published by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Buy the full book from Harper Collins, Amazon, or Bookshop.

How would you rate Sticky Rice Balls Three Ways (汤圆: 鲜肉, 芝麻, 菜猪油 \| tang yuán: xiān ròu, zhī ma, cài zhū yóu)?

  • I tried to make these sticky rice balls in three ways, however I made them really well and decided to invite two girls over to share them with. However they wouldn't let me put my balls in they jaws and got so upset that they wouldn't let me have a threeway, so I therefore didn't get sticky balls.

    • Julies Grove

    • New York, Japan

    • 11/13/2021