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Chinese New Year: Paleo 'Tong Yuen' aka Sweet Red Bean Dumplings

Oh I can just imagine the outcry from Paleo dogmatics as I dare to use the words 'Paleo' and 'Bean' in the same sentence!
Tapioca Flour Sweet Red Bean Tong Yuen
In anticipation of the backlash, I offer my advance apologies.

I don't typically include many (any) legumes in my diet and I agree with the premise that they should not replace other foods which offer more by way of nutritional benefits (meat, fish, veg, fruit etc).

However, when consumed in moderation, properly prepared (ie soaked and cooked), and individually tolerated, I believe they can be included in the context of a nutrient dense diet. Especially as Chinese New Year happens once a year, enjoy it!
Glutinous Rice Flour Sweet Red Bean Tong Yuen
Growing up, my mum used to make 'Tong Yuen' every Chinese New Year. These little soft, sticky, chewy, round dough balls are served in a sweet ginger broth and represent family unity and togetherness. Mum always insisted we eat a lucky number's worth of dumplings which was generally 7 (meaning togetherness), 8 (wealth) or 9 (longevity), so make sure to roll dumplings not too big! Whatever number you choose to eat, don't ever stop at 4!

I've never actually made Tong Yuen but now I am a mum myself I'm keen to fill my children's memories with plenty of happy memories with cultural and familial relevance. Mum has talked me through her traditional method (incidentally her recipes are ever fluid and never written down) but I wanted to make these in a way that aligned with my Paleo eating. 

Traditionally the dumplings are made with glutinous rice flour and the gingery broth is sweetened with brown sugar or rock sugar. The dumplings can be left unfilled or filled with peanut butter, sesame seed paste, red bean paste or, in Mum's offerings, usually a small nugget of brown sugar.

I have used coconut palm sugar, which although arguably will still have the insulin-raising effects of any other sugar, at least comes armed with a few nutrients from the coconut palm and a fibre called inulin, which may account for the view that it has a lower GI than regular sugar. 

While tinkering with the recipe I was suddenly reminded of another wonderful dessert from my childhood that Mum often made - a sweet red bean soup. So I decided to combine the two and make Sweet Red Bean Tong Yuen. Rather than buy pre-packaged sweet red bean paste I decided to go the whole mile and make my own, using coconut palm sugar and aiming for a much less sweet version of the shop-bought stuff.

The trickiest part to the whole recipe was trying to replicate the dumplings themselves in a Paleo-friendly form. Of all the flours I played with, tapioca flour yielded the closest texture-wise. I've had many an epic failed attempt - it is much fiddlier and less forgiving to work with; makes for a slightly chewier texture and cooks to an opaque finish which is not as pretty as the glutinous rice original (compare pictures 1 and 2 above). 

Increasing members of the Paleo community have been including moderate amounts of (white) rice in their diets and if you can tolerate rice, the glutinous rice flour version (don't be fooled by the name, it does not contain gluten) still makes for the optimum chew and texture ratio! Just saying...

Enough with the rambling; on with the recipe, kicking off with the sweet red bean paste filling...

Tong Yuen (aka Sweet Red Bean Dumplings in a Ginger Broth)

(1) Sweet Red Bean Paste

200g dried red adzuki beans
125g coconut palm sugar
pinch of salt

1. Rinse red adzuki beans well then soak overnight for 12 hours in a large bowl.

2. Rinse the beans and soak again in fresh water for another 6 hours.
3. Rinse and transfer to a large saucepan. Cover with fresh water and bring to the boil. Cover and leave for 5 minutes before draining and returning to pan with fresh water.
4. Water level should be approximately 2cm above the level of the beans. 
5. Bring to the boil then turn down heat to a medium simmer. 
6. When water has partly evaporated add water back to the same level (keep the beans covered in water at all times).
7. Continue simmering and adding water until beans are cooked (to test, squeeze a bean and it should squish like a baked bean).

8. Turn up the heat, bring the beans to a steady boil and stir in the sugar, in a few batches, STIRRING CONTINUALLY until the liquid has mostly evaporated and the mixture has thickened. 
9. Add the pinch of salt, mix well, and leave the mixture to cool completely.

10. When cool, I divided the sweet red bean paste into 4 portions (approx 150g each), wrapping them in cling film and storing the 3 unused portions in the freezer. The last one I kept in the fridge until ready to make my Tong Yuen.

(2) Dumplings

100g (1 cup) tapioca flour
1tsp olive oil
60-80ml (1/4 cup) boiling water

1. Add oil and boiling water to flour and mix either by hand or in a freestanding mixer with dough hook attachment on slow speed.
2. Slowly add water if needed A LITTLE at a time while mixer continues to mix. It will slowly come together to form a dough. If too dry add a little water. If you accidentally add too much water just sprinkle back in some extra flour. 
3. When dough has formed and doesn't stick to hands it is ready to use.

4. Keep any unused dough covered with a damp cloth or cling film while working to prevent it from drying out.
5. Pull off a small dumpling sized piece of dough, depending on the size of the desired dumplings, using well-floured hands.
6. Lightly roll into a ball; press the ball into a disc; push thumb lightly into the centre to form a small hollow.
5. Place a small nugget of red bean paste in the hollow before bringing the outer edges of the disc together at the top (like a parcel) to seal the filling in. 

6. Pinch the join closed and gently roll the parcel to form a neat ball.
7. Continue making as many or as few dumplings as needed; keep them on a flour dusted tray in a single layer, without touching each other until ready to cook.

**Alternative dumplings with glutinous rice flour
125g glutinous rice flour
100ml water

No need for mixer, just add water to flour and mix until it comes together. Use hands to lightly knead until it becomes a smooth, firm dough.  Then pinch off small pieces and roll into dumplings as before.

(3) Broth

3 cups water
3 tbsp coconut palm sugar, or adjust to taste 
3 slices of ginger, sliced and bashed


1. Place water in a saucepan with ginger.
2. Add sugar to taste and bring to a simmer.

(4) Assembling

1. Gently slide the dumplings one by one into the simmering broth, moving them around gently at the start to stop them sticking to the base of the pan. Aim for a single layer of dumplings otherwise they will stick together, so cook in batches if necessary. 
2. The Tong Yuen are ready when they float to the surface.
3. Serve the desired lucky number of Tong Yuen in a bowl with the broth.

Mini unfilled dumplings rolled by my 6 year old


For more discussion on the inclusion of legumes in a Paleo framework, see


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