Chinese sesame balls (donuts)

My grandparents on my mother’s side originally hail from a village in Southern China. One of the traditions my family have continued is making sesame balls (jian dui) or Chinese style donuts on Chinese New Year (CNY). They’re one of dozens of things that are considered auspicious.

Cooking the sesame balls

Cooking the sesame balls

Traditionally filled with red bean or lotus seed paste, there are also savoury versions. You can usually buy red bean paste from your local Chinatown or Asian supermarket. You can make your own red bean paste but it’s very labour intensive (the smoothest kind remove the red bean shells). It’s the kind of thing you’d do mostly because you can’t access the readily made kind, or want to lower the sugar content.

We make the savoury filling exactly as they still do in their old Chinese village (now thriving large city) to this day. My grandparents might have moved away from China 70+ years ago but the tradition remains. When I was little, I liked chatting to my grandparents in both Cantonese and their village dialect. It felt like our special language. I made my first (and only so far) visit to China in 2008 with my mum. We were due to visit my grandmother’s younger sister and I asked my mother if she was anything like my grandma. My mum replied: “Oh no! She’s very soft and very nice”. Despite my very poor Chinese, my great aunt was chuffed that I understood some of the old village dialect.

Raw sesame seeds

Raw sesame seeds

Yesterday being CNY, we made two donut batches over the course of the day as we catered for extended family and the constant stream of visitors. Sesame balls have always been my grandmother’s forte and she hung around the kitchen for a while, poking the dough and giving her advice.

The kneaded dough

The kneaded dough

The below batch makes a lot. Rope other people in to help wrap the donuts if you can. It’s more lively and fun that way!

Chinese sesame balls/donuts (jian dui)

Feeds: 20 people
Start cooking: 1 hour before frying (with filling already prepped)

Ingredients:

  • 1 x kilo glutinous rice flour
  • 250 grams of Chinese brown ‘slab’ sugar
  • 250 grams of white sugar
  • Water – refer to instructions
  • Prepared filling – red bean paste (prepped to the size of a large marble) or jibuyabu’s village filling (see bottom of post)
  • Raw sesame seeds, about 400 grams
  • Vegetable oil for frying – like sunflower, peanut, safflower or rice bran. Don’t use olive oil!

Method:

  1. Combine the slab sugar and the white sugar with 3 cups of water in a saucepan. Heat the mixture over medium heat and stir until the sugar is completely melted. Set aside (off the heat) for 10 minutes.
  2. In the meantime, boil up 2 cups of water in the kettle to stand by.
  3. Place the glutinous rice flour in a large mixing bowl. There’s no need to sift.
  4. Slowly mix the sugary water into the flour, mixing with a large spoon as you go. My grandmother used to use her bare hands! Be careful as the liquid is very hot.
  5. Keep mixing the flour and liquid until combined and then start to knead with your hands. The dough will be very hot so use the spoon until you’re able to handle the heat. It will take at least 5 minutes to come together. Add plain hot water about 1/4 cup at a time if needed to get the dough to come together and become smooth.
  6. Squeeze the dough with your finger. It needs to feel slightly tacky and not dry. Portion out the dough into about 10 ping pong sized balls. Cover the remaining dough with a tea-towel so it doesn’t dry out.
  7. Pour 100 grams of sesame seeds onto a large, flat plate and set aside.
  8. Using your hands, manipulate the dough until it’s a circular shape and about the size of your palm. Place at least 1 heaped teaspoon of filling in the middle then bring up the sides of the dough and press to firmly seal. Roll in your hands to smooth out. It should be just larger than a golf ball.
  9. Roll the filled dough in sesame seeds until evenly covered. Remove and set onto a separate plate, ready for frying.
  10. Continue wrapping donuts until dough is all used up. If at any time the dough feels dry and starts cracking as you press it out, sprinkle some water onto the batch of dough and lightly squeeze until the water is incorporated. This should revive it briefly but just try to work quickly.
  11. Heat up a 1.5 litres of vegetable oil in a wok over medium heat. Slide the donuts gently into the hot oil, cooking 5-8 to a batch.
  12. Let them cook in the oil for a minute (rolling them around constantly) and then start pressing the balls with a ladle or Chinese style wire basket ladle. This will encourage the donuts to puff up and cook evenly. Keep the donuts moving so they don’t burn or get dark spots.
  13. The sesame balls should become round, light spheres and begin to float. Continue to cook until just golden brown (another 6-8 minutes) lightly crisp on the outside.
  14. Drain on a plate lined with paper towels and serve immediately. Drink some Chinese tea on the side.
Chinese brown slab sugar

Chinese brown slab sugar

Rolling in sesame seeds

Rolling in sesame seeds

Sesame balls

Sesame balls

Red bean filled sesame ball. Notice how it looks hollow, light and airy.

Red bean filled sesame ball. Notice how it looks hollow, light and airy.

Jibuyabu village filling

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup x Chinese dried shrimp, washed and soaked in water for 10 minutes
  • 1 cup x water chestnuts
  • 1 cup x reconstituted dried shitake mushrooms, with tough stalks removed
  • 600 grams x Chinese roast pork
  • White pepper
  • Sesame oil
  • Salt
  • Soy sauce
  • Cornflour
  • Spring onion

Method:

  1. Dice the first six ingredients into an even dice (about 3-4 mm). The amounts should be to your taste, however the pork should make up over 40% of the filling. Adjust the rest to your liking.
  2. Cut the spring onion into 2mm slices and set aside.
  3. Heat up 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a large wok or frying pan over medium heat. Add the dried shrimp, quarter of a teaspoon of white pepper and cook for 2 minutes.
  4. Toss in the water chestnuts, shitake mushrooms and a teaspoon of sesame oil, stirring and cook for a further minute.
  5. Add the pork, a teaspoon of salt, a tablespoon of soy sauce and fold through. Taste the mixture and add more seasoning at this point if you wish. Cook for another 3 minutes. Then turn off the stove and take off the heat.
  6. Sprinkle over 2 teaspoons of cornflour and mix through. Finally, fold in the sliced spring onions. Place the filling into a container and cool to room temperature before sealing and placing in the fridge. This keeps for about a week.
Village style savoury filling

Village style savoury filling

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