Many in the northern hemisphere will today – December 22 – observe the winter solstice. The word solstice comes via Old French from the Latin solstitium, from sol (“sun”) and stit- (“stopped; stationary”). This astronomical phenomenon of the shortest period of daylight, or the longest night of the year, when one hemisphere is tilted farthest away from the sun, is marked by observances and festivals in cultures around the world.

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In East Asia, 冬至 (dōngzhì in Mandarin; dūngzi in Cantonese), meaning “the arrival of winter/winter’s extreme”, falls in the 11th lunar month (though it is a solar term) and is among the most significant festivals celebrated by the Chinese. A traditional saying has it that “winter solstice is more important than New Year”, and it has long been the time when farmers and fishermen prepare for colder months ahead.

In Hong Kong, people finish work early and head home for lavish family meals. Traditional dishes vary with the region: the north emphasises fare considered heat-y in traditional Chinese medicine, such as snake broths, because of their warming qualities, as well as dishes that ensure a resilient respiratory system, such as crocodile. One dish usually associated with southern China comprises glutinous rice flour balls quickly boiled in water and served in a warm, sugary and sometimes gingery syrup.

This dish demonstrates how Chinese cuisine often employs homophones – words with the same pronunciation but different meanings – to allude to good wishes or desired qualities. The characteristic winter solstice dish 湯圓, pronounced tōngjyùn in Cantonese and tāngyuán in Mandarin, and meaning “round balls in soup”, is homophonous with 團圓, meaning “reunion”, wholeness or unity. The round shape of the balls and the bowls in which they are served have also come to symbolise family togetherness.

Three winter solstice recipes for tong yuen - glutinous rice flour balls

Having its origins in the concept of yin and yang in Chinese philosophy, the winter solstice festival represents balance and harmony in life: the yin qualities of darkness and cold reach their height of influence on the shortest day of the year, but also mark a turning point for the coming of the light and warmth of yang.

Here’s wishing us all a time of light, rebirth and reawakening, and optimism for the year ahead.