Celebrate Lunar New Year with these sweet, mochi-like dumplings

These mochi-like rice balls, filled with peanut butter, toasted coconut and sesame seeds, are common for Lunar New Year.

These mochi-like rice balls, filled with peanut butter, toasted coconut and sesame seeds, are common for Lunar New Year.

Janelle Bitker/The Chronicle

One of my favorite traditional Chinese dishes for Lunar New Year is tang yuan, the mochi-like glutinous rice balls often filled with black sesame paste.

The holiday, which starts this year on Sunday, Jan. 22, is full of symbolic foods: dumplings for wealth, whole chicken for luck, noodles for longevity. The roundness of tang yuan is associated with reunion and family togetherness; the dessert is traditionally eaten on the 15th day of Lunar New Year festivities.

My interest in serving traditional holiday fare ebbs and flows every year, but my love of these chewy rice balls — oozing with filling and served steaming hot in ginger-scented soup — does not.

This year, I thought about another Chinese dessert my poh poh (grandma in Cantonese) always used to make for Lunar New Year: gok zai, deep-fried dumplings filled with coconut, peanuts and sesame seeds. Crisp on the outside, crumbly on the inside, they were a staple of my childhood. It felt like my poh poh would fry up hundreds, filling up jar after jar so we wouldn’t run out for weeks.

After she died, I didn’t taste another gok zai for years. My mom and I tried to figure out how to make them: guessing the texture of the dough, unsure of how long to fry them. They were OK. We haven’t attempted them again.

Last year, I noticed miniature versions at a bakery called iCafe in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I was so surprised — they’re not like deep-fried sesame balls or other treats you see everywhere, year-round. They made me remember what a wonderful flavor combination peanut, coconut and sesame is; the pleasure of the sandy texture.

So this year, I wanted to merge these two Lunar New Year treats: tang yuan with gok zai filling. Gok zai depends on crushed peanuts, but for this batch of tang yuan, I turned to crunchy peanut butter for that nutty flavor — and for its fattiness and binding power, allowing me to skip the traditional lard.

If you’ve ever tried to make traditional Japanese mochi, relax: Tang yuan is far more forgiving. Even if you can’t get a perfectly round shape, these sweet dumplings will still be delicious.

Janelle Bitker is the senior editor of Food & Wine. Email: janelle.bitker@sfchronicle.com

Tang yuan is a traditional Chinese dessert for Lunar New Year.

Tang yuan is a traditional Chinese dessert for Lunar New Year.

Janelle Bitker/The Chronicle

Tang Yuan With Peanut, Coconut and Sesame

Serves 3 to 4

You should serve the tang yuan immediately after cooking. Plan on three or four balls per person, placed in rice bowls with a few spoonfuls of the gingery soup. You can make the dumplings in advance: The uncooked balls will keep for about a day in an airtight container in the fridge, or you can freeze them for three months. If you opt to freeze them, cook them directly from frozen, adding a few more minutes to the boiling time. The ginger soup adds dimension and sweetness to the dumplings, but you can skip it and simply serve the tang yuan in hot water instead. You will have a little extra filling — consider it a snack for the chef.

For the filling

¼ cup shredded coconut

3 tablespoons white sesame seeds

1 tablespoon coconut oil, melted and cooled slightly

2 tablespoons crunchy peanut butter

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

Pinch fine sea salt

For the soup

4 cups water

2 inches ginger, thinly sliced

½ cup granulated sugar

For the dough

1 cup glutinous rice flour (such as Mochiko), plus more for dusting

½ cup warm water

Make the filling : Toast coconut and sesame seeds in a skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they turn aromatic and golden, 3 to 5 minutes. In a medium bowl, mix together the coconut oil, peanut butter, sugar and salt until smooth. Add the coconut and sesame, and mix until evenly combined. Put in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to firm up.

Make the soup : Bring water, ginger and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat. Lower the heat and let it simmer while you make the dumplings. (If you are making the dumplings in advance, let the soup simmer for about 25 minutes.)

Make the dough : Place glutinous rice flour in a medium bowl. If you dip your finger in the water, it should feel warmer than your body temperature but not uncomfortable hot. Slowly stream in water while stirring with a flexible spatula. Knead the dough with your hands until smooth. If it’s sticky, sprinkle on a little more rice flour. You want it to feel like soft Play-Doh; if it’s cracking and dry, it will be too difficult to form the dumplings. Remove the filling from the fridge.

Roll dough out into a rope that’s about 1-inch thick. Cut the rope into 1-inch pieces; you should get about 14. Roll the pieces into balls. Place a piece in the palm of your hand and press it flat. Using your fingers, flatten the edges so they’re thinner than the center, and make sure it’s at least 2 inches wide. Dust your hands with a little rice flour if the dough is sticking. Spoon a rounded teaspoon of filling into the center. Use your fingers to close the wrapper around the ball, pinching and patting it into a round shape. It doesn’t have to be perfectly neat, but make sure no filling is exposed. Repeat with the remaining balls. (To freeze, place the balls on a baking sheet in the freezer, ensuring they don’t touch. Once frozen, transfer to an airtight bag.)

When ready to cook and serve, bring at least 5 cups of water to a boil  in a pot. Add the balls, adjusting the heat as needed to keep the water at a gentle boil. Cook until the balls float and the skin turns semi-translucent, about 5 minutes. Divide among three to four rice bowls, spooning ginger soup on top.