In East Asia, people love glutinous rice desserts. Since glutinous rice is readily available everywhere in the region, for thousands of years, people have used glutinous rice flour to make desserts of all shapes and sizes. The most common type of glutinous rice dessert in East Asia is glutinous rice balls. This sweet dish is often eaten on special occasions such as Lunar New Year, birthdays, and other festivals. Growing up in Vietnam, a Southeast Asian country whose cuisine is heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine, I love to eat dishes, from savory to sweet, made of glutinous rice. One of my favorite childhood memories is to not only eat glutinous rice balls dessert with my family but also to make this dessert with my sisters and my grandma.
First of all, let’s start with the name. Though this dessert is called glutinous rice balls dessert, its native Vietnamese name is “Chè Trôi Nước” which translates to floating dessert wading in water. If you are familiar with Vietnamese desserts, they are often named after their looks rather than their ingredients. In this dish, there is often one big, stuffed, glutinous rice ball and a bunch of smaller, unstuffed, rice balls served in a small bowl along with the sweet ginger syrup, coconut dressing or sauce, and sesame seeds for garnishing. The glutinous rice balls dessert is best served warm because the glutinous balls are chewy and stretchy only when warmed, and the sweet ginger syrup becomes very aromatic when warmed up as well.
The glutinous rice balls dessert in Vietnam is influenced by a similar dessert from China called Tang Yuan. The origin of this dessert in Vietnam is unknown, but the origin of glutinous rice balls in China is dated back to the Song Dynasty. For thousands of years, the purpose of this dessert remains the same. It is to be eaten during Lunar New Year and other special occasions. During Lunar New Year, family members will reunite from all different parts of the country and join the family dinner. The name Tang Yuan rhymes with the word Tuan Yuan which means “reunion” in Chinese. This dessert is often seen as the symbol of family members who live apart from each other reunite once again.
In China, Tang Yuan is often stuffed with a sweet black sesame paste. In Vietnam, glutinous rice balls are often stuffed with mung bean paste. This mung bean paste is often balanced between sweet and salty which gives this dessert its unique flavor. What I love the most about my culture and Vietnamese cuisine is that we always balance our dishes. In most of our sweet dishes, there is always an amount of salt added to balance the sugar. When you eat the Vietnamese glutinous rice balls dessert, the first flavors you will encounter are the sweetness of sugar and the crisp and slightly spicy taste of fresh ginger. Next, once you bite into the glutinous rice ball, you will feel the chewiness of the glutinous shell and the subtly sweet and salty taste of the mung bean filling. For those who love coconut milk, I do, you can put plenty of pandan-flavored coconut sauce on top of the glutinous balls and eat everything together.
This dish is very delicious and pretty easy to make. You can either buy it at Asian supermarkets, Asian fast-food restaurants, or you can make it at home. Try it when you have a chance, you may fall in love with it.