During my years in Taiwan I somehow found myself getting involved in all sorts of random things. I joined Dao lessons, karate club, and different student meetups revolving around international friendships. I even participated in a home stay program; I ended up staying at a Taiwanese girl’s house in Taoyuan for a weekend (after I met her once…talk about awkward). While being thrown into all these situations, I got to experience a side of Taiwan that is not immediately perceived by an outsider. I learned some Buddhist stories and Daoist rituals (I even went to a summer camp for young people, involving waking up at dawn for prayers), tried amazing vegetarian food, hot pot, all kinds of street food that locals love (including stinky tofu). I learned how to make dumplings, including tang yuan for the winter solstice.
I learned how tang yuan are made during my first “winter” (I discovered the true meaning of winter here in Europe) in Taiwan. In a small room somewhere in Fu Jen Catholic University, I joined a group of students to make traditional tang yuan to celebrate the Dong Zhi Festival (winter solstice). We made lots of dough balls using sticky rice flour and water, which we then boiled in a sweet soup. Visually, they were very appealing: bright pink balls contrasting with the white ones. Inside they were very chewy. The ones we made were plain, but since then I’ve seen tang yuan filled with sesame, peanut or red bean paste. I had them a couple of times in Taiwan, but since that one time I never made them again.
Fast forward to last week when I realized the Winter Solstice Festival would fall just before Christmas. It would be the perfect opportunity to indulge in more Taiwanese food (the pineapple cakes were just not enough). Best of all, that would leave Christmas dinner to be claimed by Honduras with a menu that pretty much planned itself. I take the holidays very seriously.
To celebrate the winter solstice, I spent a total of four hours in the kitchen and by the end I had a ton of food to show for it: the biggest plate of prawn pancakes (月亮蝦餅) you will ever see and a mountain of popcorn chicken(鹽酥雞), washed down with a jug of Thai iced tea (just because). To finish a small serving of tang yuan in a sweet ginger broth. So actually only the tang yuan are traditionally Dong Zhi Festival food, but I had a hankering for some of my favorite discoveries from Taiwan.
For years, I had been searching for crispy prawn pancakes in restaurants, but I never found them outside Taiwan. I was so excited when I accidentally came across this video by Taiwan Cooking showing how to make them. The recipe on the video had a very large yield, so I used half the amount of prawns and guesstimated the amounts for the seasonings. They turned out quite tasty (just a teeny bit too much fish seasoning, a little bit goes a long way) and even though I halved the recipe, I still got about 8 pancakes.
Add to that the popcorn chicken and there’s a food baby on the way. Ever since I discovered Bigbe Chicken in London’s Chinatown, I’ve been wanting to do popcorn chicken myself. It is a hassle reserved for special occasions. Seeing the success I had with the pineapple cakes, I went with another video by Angel Wong’s Kitchen, this time to make popcorn chicken. I chose it because it had a simplified method compared to other videos and the results looked great. I discovered the secret to popcorn chicken lies in the final dusting of white pepper and salt (years I spent wondering what made Taiwanese fried chicken so addictive).
To end this Taiwanese food extravaganza, the tang yuan. Although Taiwan Cooking has a video on tang yuan I actually followed Rasa Malaysia’s recipe, since it had accurate measurements for a set number of portions. I wouldn’t know what to do with all the extra dough, especially since I have a boyfriend who sometimes is a bit skeptical about what I cook.
Making tang yuan is exactly as I remembered: simple dough, boiled in water and served with the steaming, sweet broth. I did follow Taiwan Cooking’s tip on soaking the tang yuan in ice water right after being cooked. They were definitely more Q (Taiwanese expression for chewy).
The best part was eating it all and Boyfriend actually liking it (even the spiced ice tea and he doesn’t like tea). Not to mention the fairy lights and unwanted Christmas tree branches Boyfriend secured to decorate the room, Love Actually playing on TV. He made his own first winter wonderland while watching Colin Firth fumble with Portuguese and Hugh Grant traipsing through Wandsworth, an area we know so well. The eating and drinking, the lights and the movie made it the perfect prelude to Christmas.