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February 22, 2007

Chinese New Year: Sesame Seed Balls


The Sunday just past (Feb. 18) marked the first day of the Chinese New Year 4705, or the Year of the Pig. There have been firecrackers going off late into the night, lucky oranges and plum blossoms in shop windows, and a lot of red and gold decorations everywhere.

Many Chinese holiday traditions are heavily steeped in symbolism - beyond the typical associations between shapes, colors, etc., the large number of homophones in the Chinese language has made the Chinese particularly fond of puns and wordplay. For example, the word "fish" in Chinese sounds very similar to the word for "surplus" or "extra" - so if you eat fish at New Year's you are hoping for a year of abundance, or surplus. Oranges and tangerines are often given as gifts at New Year's since the words for these fruits sound like wealth and luck, respectively.

You will often see Chinese put up little red diamond-shaped posters with the character 福, meaning auspiciousness, on their doors. However, the poster is always upside down, which used to puzzle me as a child until my mom explained that the word for "upside down" sounds similar to the word for "arrive" - meaning you're inviting good fortune and prosperity into your home.

There are many other New Year's traditions, from not washing or cutting your hair on New Year's Day (as it symbolizes washing or cutting away your luck), to the always enjoyable (at least for children and single adults) receiving of lucky money in red envelopes. But really, the best part of New Year's, like any other holiday, is the chance to celebrate with your family and friends. You don't need to know the meaning behind the plum trees or the noodle dishes to feel the festive spirit in the Chinatown streets. This year of the Pig is said to bring good luck and prosperity, although natural disasters increasing worldwide have also been predicted (hmm, rather typical of many horoscopes that like to cover all the bases??) Also, children born in the year of the Pig are said to have comfortable, easy lives (like the pig!) so there has been a noticeable baby boom reported in Asia as hopeful parents try to get every last life advantage possible for their offspring!

To celebrate this Chinese New Year, I made another traditional New Year's treat - sesame seed balls, or jien duy. These sweet, deep-fried puffs of dough coated in sesame seeds are a mainstay of dim sum houses, but at New Year's they take on special meaning. Their round shape and golden color are considered lucky, and the fact that the dough balls swell as they're fried and increase several times in size is a happy metaphor for a small venture growing and bringing back a large return. Sesame seed balls are traditionally filled with a bit of sweet red bean paste - they're pretty much the Chinese equivalent of a jelly doughnut, only lighter and fluffier - but I put a few discs of chocolate in some of my sesame seed balls, turning them into a profiterole-like dessert.

Best wishes for a happy and prosperous New Year - the celebration traditionally lasts for fifteen days, so you've plenty of time to bestow some good luck on your friends and family!


Sesame Seed Balls

makes about 20

1 lb glutinous rice flour

1 1/4 cup dark brown sugar

1 1/4 cup water

1/2 cup red bean paste or 3 oz dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces

1 cup sesame seeds

oil for deep frying

Put the rice flour into a large bowl. Bring the water to a boil and add the brown sugar, stirring to dissolve.

Pour the sugar water over the rice flour and stir together with a wooden spoon to combine. You can add up to 1/3 cup more water if the mixture seems dry and isn't coming together. Once the dough is cool enough to touch with your bare hands you can stop using the spoon and just knead the dough - don't overwork it or it will become tough.

Once the dough is soft and smooth, break off a piece about the size of a golf ball and roll between your hands to form a ball. Place in a dish and cover with some plastic wrap, then repeat with the remaining dough.

Take one of the dough balls and make a well in it with your thumb. Place either a teaspoon of the red bean paste or a few pieces of the chocolate in the well, then push the dough together to cover up the filling.  Roll the ball between your hands again to make it smooth and round without cracks.

Wet your hands with water and roll the dough ball in a dish of the sesame seeds, pressing gently to get the seed to adhere to the dough ball. Place the ball back under the plastic wrap and repeat with remaining balls.

Pour the oil in a wok or other pan so it is deep enough to cover the dough balls when you fry them. Heat over medium heat until it is 350 degrees.

Place a few dough balls (about 4-5) in the hot oil and let cook. Use a ladle or wooden spoon to press the dough balls against the side of the pan to rotate them - this is important to help them cook evenly and prevent spots from burning.

When the seeds start turning golden and the dough balls start floating to the top of the oil, the balls should be done - about 5 to 6 minutes. You might want to fish one out and cut it in half to make sure the dough has cooked all the way through.

Remove the balls and drain them on paper towels, then repeat with the rest. The sesame seed balls should be served as soon as possible to preserve freshness.

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love this version of jin dui!
Kung Hee Fat Choy!

Heaven hidden inside. What a great idea!

I've been looking for a jien duy recipe for years! I love them! Thank you so much! When you say glutinous flour, do you mean the sweet rice flour that one uses to make mochi? Thanks!

Is there any possibility to make sesame seed balls with ordinary rice flour? Since there is no glutinous rice flour in my country...

OMG I have been craving jin dui for a loooong time thank you for posting the recipe!

This is what Chinese food needs. Don't get me wrong, I love the almond cookie or the fortune cookie but I would always like dessert.
Happy year of the pig to you!

This is such a typical recipe!!Loved it!!Jessica

Sesame seed balls are one of my favourite thing to get in Chinatown, along with red bean buns!

I have just made some seasame balls last month and it's a sweet suprise to see that red bean paste can be substituted for dark chocolate! Marvellous. It will be definately a great surprise for my family. Thanks!

Happy Chinese Lunar New year! Oink oink. ;)

Oh those look so good! Happy New Year!

These look delicious! Can't wait to try them! :)

Gorgeous! Thanks for introducing me to another traditional dessert. I love the little surprise inside!

hmmm...yummy rendition of sesame seed balls. happy CNY to you! in indonesia, we used to make milk fish soup for the gods, and now i know why there's always fish every year! i'm waiting if this lucky year will bring more luckyness to me since i was born in the year of boar! ;D

Happy New Year, Anita. One of my co-workers brought this exact treat into work this week. They're good, but your chocolate-filled version looks even better.

Hmmm...I love these! Never seen one with chocolate though. So, like, how many calories does one plain one have?

The chocolate filling is a great idea. Very east meets west. Happy CNY!

I miss eating these! Never had them with chocolate. That is a fabulous touch!

I've always wanted to try making these as my father loves the red bean paste filled version, but I'm too scared that I won't be able to get this perfect shape! Yours look absolutely stellar!

Sesame and chocolate = YUM!
I'll look for them in China Town

gorgeous gorgeous! they look so tempting...especially with the chocolate. i can't wait to attempt them myself.

Thanks! Gung Hay Fat Choy to you too!

Thanks! The hidden surprise is one of my favorite dessert ideas!

Madam Chow,
I think it is similar but perhaps the the mochi flour is made from Japanese rice? Still, it should work the same!

I am not sure where you live? Glutinous rice flour is different from regular rice flour in that it becomes very sticky when cooked - regular flour won't work.

Thank you, I hope you enjoy and happy New Year!

Thank you! I agree there isn't enough chocolate in Asian desserts - I love putting it in where I can!

Thank you and happy New Year!

Thanks! It's always so hard to choose from the huge variety of buns!

Apparently in HK they put all sorts of fillings in now, just like with mooncakes! Happy New Year!

Thank you and Happy New Year!

I hope you enjoy them! Happy New Year!

Thank you! I like playing around with some of the traditional Chinese desserts!

My sister is also a boar, so I hope the two of you have a very lucky year! The milk fish soup sounds very interesting!

Glad you got to have some sesame balls! I only realized recently how easy it is to substitute fillings in them!

Hmm, I'm not sure I've ever seen a nutritional analysis on them:) There isn't much to them, although they're deep-fried - so I would guess a couple hundred calories? At least they have less sugar than a donut!

Thank you - I like to do "fusion" when I can:) Happy New Year!

Thanks! Apparently in Hong Kong they put all kinds of fillings in there now - chocolate is just the beginning!

Thank you! It takes a little practice - I had some lumpy ones, but try pressing on them with a spatula when they're frying and rotating them to prevent one side from burning and to help them puff up evenly!

They were my sister's favorites at dim sum (the ones with red bean paste). I'm not sure the chocolate ones are easily found in the US yet!

Thank you! I hope you like them, and Happy New Year!

wow, i loooove sesame balls, but i've never had one with chocolate inside! hmmm...intriguing idea...

happy year of the golden piggy!

I made these for my mom when she was sick.She loved them soooo much.I tried one and fell in love with them.Now we make them every new year...But we make sure we make a tripple batch for our friends.THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THE GREAT DESSERT!

It is a great simple recipe that works!! My only quetion is when you roll the fresh dough into balls, what do you do to make it not stick to your hands. I put cornstarch on the board so when I get to rolling, the ball has crackes and crevices where the cornstarch has met the surface.

this is a little late, but for jen's question about sticky dough, try kneading a little more of the same rice flour into the dough... i also use the same rice flour to dust my hands, the board, and the plate where the balls will be kept. just a light sprinkling will do the job.

sesame balls are old favorites... i love them with red or white/yellow bean paste.

These look great! Molten chocolate goodness...yum! And I love red bean paste!

My dad loves these and is always sneaking them since my mom won't let him eat them, lol. Maybe I'll make some and sneak some to him when she's not looking :)

Great blog post! I am writing a post about Chinese Dim Sum and sesame balls are my favorite dessert! Thanks!

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