What Is Fan Tuan And What Does It Taste Like?

Rice is a big part of global food culture and we consume it in different ways: boiled, fried, in soups, as stuffing, or even as part of dessert. While you're probably familiar with risotto and congee, you might know little to nothing about fan tuan, a rice-centric breakfast staple in Taiwan and Shanghai that has managed to cross the Pacific to show up at eateries in New York (via The New York Times).

As is the case with a number of Chinese dishes, it's hard to pinpoint exactly where fan tuan was first made. Blogger Cinnybear, who appears to be a fan, quotes her own mother's claim that the dish has Taiwanese origins while acknowledging that its exact history may be more general. Despite its rather murky origins, fan tuan is an indispensable part of Chinese breakfast food culture. In Shanghai, where it is referred to as ci fan (pronounced tszi fan per CMU), it is so important that Saveur says Shanghai-based fans have dubbed it one of the "Four Warriors" of the breakfast world along with soy milk, fried crullers, and sesame pancakes.

What fan tuan tastes like

The name 'fan tuan' itself is Chinese for "rice ball", which is pretty much what it is. Its outer layer is made out of warm sticky rice and a piece of you tiao or fried cruller — preferably a day old to add stiffness and extra crunch. To that rice-and-cruller combination, pork, fish, or vegetarian floss is added; some fan tuan vendors will also add an egg, which can be fried, made into an omelet, or braised and cut into slivers. Deft, practiced hands roll everything together into a compact oblong (via Vice).

But the sum is so much greater than its parts because biting into a warm, freshly-made fan tuan gives you a symphony of flavors and textures. Condiments like pickled mustard greens and preserved radish turn what could be a stodgy, bland, forgettable sushi burrito wanna-be into a culinary superstar. The flavor of a fan tuan is sweet, salty, and a bit sour all at the same time thanks to the floss, pickles, and rice. Those same ingredients give the fan tuan its textures, which run from soft and chewy (rice) to crisp (pickles and cruller). 

What is a fan tuan filled with?

You might think that fan tuan comes in just one color, but even the rice layer itself can be a showstopper — the sticky rice used to make fan tuan can be white, purple, or even a blend with corn or sesame that creates a chewy, crunchy, flavorful combo (via Vice). Fan tuan ticks all the right boxes as a breakfast food, and when consumed with a glass of cold or warm soy milk, it is the perfect meal to take with you when you're in a hurry or on the go. 

Shiyu Lio, a fan tuan vendor who sells his wares out of a shop in Taipei, said that serving up rice balls was a more straightforward affair in the past. He told Vice, "In the old days, fan tuan was just warm sticky rice wrapped around pickled mustard greens and salted radish. We also used lotus leaves instead of plastic to wrap it together." Today, more complicated versions of the food are popular and a fancy fan tuan can even feature bacon, purple rice kimchi, and spicy chicken, which lend their flavors to this already flavorful dish.

How is a fan tuan made?

Because fan tuan is easily found in Taipei and Shanghai, fans will generally have a go-to vendor, instead of a go-to recipe. However, the internet is full of tips and suggestions on how to make fan tuan at home. Food blogger Woon Heng offers a vegetarian fan tuan recipe that makes use of sushi rice spread thinly on a sushi mat or paper towel covered with a piece of plastic wrap or waxed paper. When the rice is ready, sprinkle seeds into the wrap, add your cooked rice, and then spread it into a square before adding your fillings.

Assorted Eats shares a recipe that makes use of sticky rice assembled atop a sushi mat wrapped with plastic wrap. Once the ingredients — an egg, a cruller, and pickled radish — are added to the treat, the rice is rolled up tightly and served. The blog also gives a few tips to make sure your fan tuan is a success, like working with hot rice and using more rice if you want to add more fillings.

Are fan tuans healthy?

Because there are so many different combinations and permutations involving fan tuan today, it would be difficult to give a definite assessment of the dish's nutrition profile. Regardless, China Sichuan Food gave it a try and claimed that one fan tuan will have around 561 calories, 112 grams of carbohydrates, 9 grams of protein, 124 milligrams of potassium, and 18 milligrams of sodium. These nutritional facts were for a version of the food made with white rice and filled with a fried cruller, a cup of pork floss, and half a Takuan pickled radish. You can expect those nutrition values to rise and fall depending on what fillings go into your fan tuan.

It might be known as a Shanghainese Breakfast Warrior, but fan tuan is a street food delicacy in both Taiwan and Shanghai. These are the two places they are most likely to be consumed by workers rushing to begin by day. Vice reports that if you are in one of these cities, you can buy the food from street vendors or breakfast shops that will either custom-build your fan tuan or have some pre-made and wrapped up tightly in plastic for you to grab. You can also indulge in New York, where they are sold in simple shops that offer fan tuan with a cup of soy milk (via The New York Times).