Lantern Festivals, Rice Dumplings, and Other Taiwanese Traditions

Yuanxiao Jie, or Lantern Festival, commemorates the end of the Lunar New Year Holidays. The festival falls on the fifteenth day of the first month of the new year according to the lunar calendar, on the night of the full moon.

On the night of Yuanxiao Jie, parades and festivals are held around Taiwan, and every religious, business & civic organization from north to south tries to outdo each other in creating and displaying the most stunningly beautiful lantern-filled floats. Naturally, these displays often feature lanterns and themes based on the year’s zodiac animal. So in 2019, Yuanxiao Jie happens on Tuesday, February 19. Expect to see a great deal of deeply ornate lanterns and floats featuring plenty of pigs. Click here for a lowdown of eight of Taiwan’s best lantern festival spots.  

As with many Taiwanese festivals, Yuanxiao Jie has a specific food associated with the holiday, the aptly-named Yuanxiao (元宵) dumpling. These dumplings are very close to Tangyuan  (湯圓), so close that these days most folks think of Tangyuan and Yuanxiao as being interchangeable.

Yuangxiao (元宵)

It’s easy to see why. Both are made of glutinous rice (but are generally gluten-free and hence safe for visitors with gluten intolerance), and both (being round) can be said to evoke a full moon. But there are subtle differences between Yuanxiao and Tangyuan, and being able to tell the two apart will mark you as a true Taiwan Cuisine expert – at least to folks over fifty (most Taiwanese younger than that don’t know the difference themselves).

So what are the main differences between Yuanxio & Tanyuan?

1. How they’re made

The first difference is preparation. Yuanxiao are rolled around in a basket filled with rice flour, creating a dry, soft surface. Tangyuan are kneaded by hand, creating a smoother, stickier outer dumpling.

Yuanxiao are rolled around in a basket
Tangyuan are kneaded by hand

2. The flavors you’ll find inside

Both can have a variety of fillings, but whereas Yuanxiao generally tend to have sweet, solid fillings like fruit, sesame and bean pastes, Tangyuan contain either sweet or savory stuffings like minced meat, mushrooms or other more salty mixtures. Both are generally served in a soup base, but the broth in which Yuanxiao are served tends to be quite a bit thicker than that of Tangyuan.

3. Seasonality & significance

The other difference between the two dishes concerns the time of year in which they’re traditionally served, and what they symbolize. Tangyuan are considered a traditional part of the winter solstice feast and are meant to symbolize the concept of having grown another year older and wiser. Yuanxiao (as the name implies) are especially significant during the Yuanxiao festival and are meant to signify wholeness, completeness and family reunion.

While associated with different holidays, both Yuanxiao and Tangyuan can be found year-round, and any city in Taiwan will have a number of good restaurants specializing in serving both these dishes and others. We’ve gone ahead and listed our five favorites here in Taipei:

Five Great Places to Get Yuanxiao and Tangyuan in Taipei

1.Zheng Jiang Hao 政江號傳統小吃店

No. 109, Section 2, Jinshan South Road, Da’an District, Taipei City, 106

This traditional hole-in-the-wall dumpling shop serves a variety of different types of soup dumpling ranging from savory to sweet, and is considered a must-visit by visitors looking for a genuinely local Taiwan dining experience.

2.Yu ping yuan 御品元冰火湯圓

No. 31, Alley 50, Lane 39, Tonghua Street, Da’an District, Taipei City, 106

Game of Thrones fans will appreciate the fire and ice theme of this tiny eatery’s specialty, binghuo tangyuan, shaved ice served with piping hot sweetened rice dumplings.

3.Ba Dong Zai 八棟圓仔湯

No. 20, Lane 309, Section 2, Zhonghua Road, Zhongzheng District, Taipei City, 100

This popular soup dumpling shop is known for adding fragrant rice wine to their broth, making their sweet tangyuan an especially spirited dish.

4.Meet Fresh 鮮芋仙

This Taiwanese chain was opened by a farming family fron Taichung dedicated to creating healthy desserts crafted from Taiwan-grown items like rice, taro, sugar, yams and more.  Meetfresh has locations all over the world. Click here to find the one nearest to you.

5.He Xiang Delicious / Dr.Q

Shilin District / Tienmu, Fuhua Road No.24 / MRT: Zhishan Station Exit 1

This small shop just east of Tienmu’s Zhishan MRT station is fairly famous, having been visited by both Lonely Planet and the late Anthony Bourdain. They serve excellent, melt-in-your-mouth meat-filled rice dumplings in soup, as well as traditional tang yuan with a variety of fillings. (Read more: Eight Great Taipei Hole-in-the-wall eateries)