December 22: Winter Solstice
As the days grow shorter and the nights get colder, keep warm on the Winter Solstice with a sweet Asian soup consisting of small sticky rice balls. In China, during the Dōng Zhì Festival, the clear soup is called tangyuan—the rice balls may be plain or stuffed with a sweet bean, black sesame or peanut paste. The Filipinos have a similar sweet soup, ginataan bilo-bilo—the rice balls are stewed in a sweetened coconut milk mixture. Other Asian countries have their own versions of a sweet sticky rice ball soup (for example, Thai bua loi is similar to ginataan bilo-bilo). The round shape is auspicious and also symbolizes families gathering ‘round the holidays—as in “coming together full circle”.
Islander’s Mommy used to make ginataan bilo-bilo as a snack for the family when it was cooler weather in Hawaii (brrrr…low ‘70s!). Because it is labor intensive to roll the sticky rice balls, it represents a heart-warming food for all of us as well. Sometimes, tubers such as taro, sweet potato or ube (purple yam), are added to the soup to make it heartier. Because as kids, Islander and her brother called this dish “snowballs” due to its milky-white color, she prefers to add white taro to keep its wintery color (ube gives the dish a vibrant violet hue).
Welcome winter with a warm bowl of ginataan bilo-bilo and enjoy this dish through the holidays and the coming new year.
Adapted from Mommy
For the mochi balls
- 1 lb. (1 box) mochiko (sweet rice) flour
In a large bowl, put the mochiko and make a well. Gradually add water a few drops at a time. Stir until the dough sticks together.
On a clean, floured surface, roll a palm-size ball of dough into a long strip around ¾-inch thick. Slice into ¾-inch pieces. Roll each piece into a ball. Place the balls on a flat container filled with flour to prevent the dough balls from sticking. While the dough balls rest, make the sweet stew.
For the sweet stew
- 1 cup cooked large tapioca pearls (or mini tapioca, if desired)
- 1 cup yam/taro/sweet potato, peeled and sliced into bite-sized chunks, par-boiled (semi-cooked)
- 2 cans coconut milk
- 1 cup water
- ½ cup sugar (or to taste)
- 1 can jackfruit slices (reserve ¼ cup liquid syrup from the can to sweeten and flavor the stew—optional); cut into smaller strips
- 1-2 sweet plantain bananas, peeled and sliced into 1 inch chunks
- ¼ teaspoon anise seed
Cook the tapioca according to the package instructions. Drain and rinse. Set aside. Slice the yam/taro/sweet potato. Parboil, drain and set aside.
In a large pot, stir the coconut milk with water. Bring to a boil over medium-low heat as to not scald the coconut milk. Remove each mochiko ball from the flour and add to the milk mixture. Gently stir to prevent the balls from sticking to each other. Simmer on low heat for 15-20 minutes or until the balls float slightly to the top. Add the sugar (and jackfruit syrup, if extra flavoring is desired).
Add the cooked tapioca pearls and stir to separate them. Sprinkle the anise seed. Stir in the jackfruit slices.
Add the plantain banana slices and taro/yam/sweet potato. Serve warm so the balls are still chewy and not hard. Store in an airtight container. If serving leftovers, ladle into soup/dessert bowls and add a little water to liquefy the stew. Microwave for a minute or two until the mochiko balls have softened.
- Depending on the location and lunar calendar, the Winter Solstice date can fall between December 21-23.
- Thanks to Mommy, Daddy, Auntie Letty and Auntie Finey for making the rice balls for this blog post recipe when they visited us in Texas from Hawaii and the Philippines.
- Frozen sticky rice balls may be found in Asian grocery stores and could be used as a shortcut to the homemade version. Make sure the balls are cooked through so they are soft and chewy instead of hard and flour-y.
- If using ube (purple yam), there will be a violet tint to the sweet stew.
- The addition of round tapioca pearls increase the luck factor and provide more chewy textures to ginataan bilo-bilo (and bua loi), making this dish appropriate for new year’s celebrations as well.