Sesame Balls

published Jan 6, 2022
Sesame Balls Recipe

These sesame balls stuffed with black sesame filling are crunchy, chewy, and sweet.

Makes10 sesame balls

Prep55 minutes to 1 hour

Cook15 minutes to 30 minutes

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A plate with sesame balls (made with a sticky rice flour dough, filled with a sweet paste, rolled in sesame seeds, and fried until crispy on the outside) with another empty plate in the background with chopsticks on it
Credit: Zoe Yang

Sesame balls are a ubiquitous snack across the rice-growing regions of China, gracing both dimsum banquet halls in the South, where they are known as jiandui, and street stalls in the Yangtze River delta, where we call them matuan. Sesame balls stuffed with silky red bean paste — crunchy, chewy, and sweet — are the earliest treats I can recall. 

These days, sesame balls with no filling are all the rage in China — the balls puff up in oil and become hollow inside like a beignet. And like a beignet, it’s hard to eat just one. But if you want to fill your sesame balls, there is no shortage of classic options, many of which can be found pre-made at Asian grocery stores (or online).

Because sesame balls are basically mochi donuts, they can be stuffed with pretty much anything. The sticky rice dough provides a gently sweet and versatile backdrop for all manner of flavors. Feel free to get creative with your fillings. I bet Nutella or even cheesecake would be amazing twists. 

The Fillings in This Recipe

I’ve included two optional fillings in this recipe: a classic mung bean filling, and a more modern “black sugar sesame” filling, inspired by black sugar boba, the latest Taiwanese boba trend to take over the world. My mung bean paste calls for green unhusked mung beans, which makes a chunky filling (yes, I also like pulp in my OJ). If you prefer a smooth filling, substitute husked yellow mung beans (or buy a ready-made paste). As for the black sugar filling, I use black sesame seeds as the foundation and add loads of Taiwanese black sugar, which is an intense, unrefined cane sugar whose closest cousins are jaggery and piloncillo. The black sugar adds fruity acidity and caramel flavors to the filling, and if you have these sesame balls with a glass of milk, you might be convinced you’re at Tiger Sugar. Black sugar is available for sale online, but if you’re unable to find it, don’t worry: Substitute with any other unrefined sugar, or use regular dark brown sugar and add a spoonful of molasses. 

Sticky Rice Flour

One ingredient that cannot be substituted is sticky rice flour, also known as glutinous rice flour. Asian brands such as Koda Farms or Erawan sell traditional water-milled sticky rice flour, which has a texture like powdered sugar and is ideal for sesame balls. I had less success getting my dough to be as soft and absorbent when using non-Asian brands like Bob’s Red Mill. Whatever you do, don’t use regular rice flour, which is an entirely different thing!

Credit: Zoe Yang

The Science of Sesame Balls

You may have heard that sesame balls will explode if you fry them incorrectly, and it’s true — even if the balls have no filling (something I learned the hard way). When a sesame ball is deep-fried, the water in the dough evaporates out and the steam causes the dough to expand. If this process happens too quickly or unevenly, or if the dough itself is unevenly mixed, it cannot stretch properly and therefore explodes. Many recipes also call for baking powder, which is meant to chemically aid the natural steam-powered puffing of the sesame ball, but it can cause too-fast expansion and subsequent explosion. The low-and-slow frying technique in this recipe is my mom’s, and it produces safe, consistent results, as well as sesame balls that stay crunchy after cooling. Please pay specific attention to the following:

  • The amount of sugar in the dough: Sugar helps the rice flour expand when heated. Not enough sugar may cause cracking and/or explosions.
  • The texture of the dough: Sesame balls should be fried immediately after shaping, when the dough is still soft and moist.
  • The temperature of the oil: In the first 10 minutes of frying, as each sesame ball is expanding, oil temperature over 300°F may cause explosions. Only let the temperature exceed 300°F during the final minutes if you want your sesame balls to take on more color. An accurate thermometer is key!
  • The movement of the sesame balls: To ensure that all sides fry at the same rate, movement should be constant.
  • The shape of the sesame balls as they fry: Balls that become pear-shaped will imminently explode and should be scooped out immediately.
  • Your person: Wear long sleeves and do NOT stand with your face over the oil!

Sesame Balls Recipe

These sesame balls stuffed with black sesame filling are crunchy, chewy, and sweet.

Prep time 55 minutes to 1 hour

Cook time 15 minutes to 30 minutes

Makes 10 sesame balls

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

Option 1: Mung Bean Filling

  • 1/2 cup

    unhusked dried green mung beans

  • 1/3 cup

    granulated sugar

  • 2 tablespoons

    canola or peanut oil

  • 3 to 5 tablespoons

    water, divided

Option 2: Black Sugar Sesame Filling

  • 1/2 cup

    untoasted black sesame seeds

  • 1/3 cup

    black sugar (see Recipe Note)

  • 1 tablespoon

    water

  • 1 tablespoon

    toasted sesame oil

For the rice flour dough:

  • 2/3 cup

    water

  • 2 tablespoons

    granulated sugar

  • 1 cup

    plus 2 tablespoons fine-textured sticky or glutinous rice flour (about 200 grams), such as Koda Farms mochiko or Erawan

  • 1 tablespoon

    neutral oil, such as vegetable or canola

For the sesame coating:

  • 1 tablespoon

    sticky rice flour

  • 1/3 cup

    hot water

  • 1/2 cup

    raw white sesame seeds

  • Up to 8 cups

    canola or peanut frying oil, for deep frying

Instructions

Option 1: Mung Bean Filling

  1. Place 1/2 cup unhusked dried green mung beans in a medium bowl and add enough cool water to cover by a few inches. Let soak uncovered at room temperature overnight.

  2. Drain and rinse beans. Place in a small saucepan and add enough cool water to cover (about 1 cup). Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the water is almost totally boiled off, stirring at the end to make sure beans aren’t sticking to the bottom, about 15 minutes. Skim off any foamy scum that rises as the beans cook.

  3. Drain the beans. Transfer to a food processor fitted with the blade attachment and add 1/3 cup granulated sugar. Turn the motor on and drizzle in in 2 tablespoons neutral oil and 3 tablespoons of the water. Continue to process until a thick paste forms, adding up to 2 more tablespoons of water and scraping down the sides as needed, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes or up to 2 days to make it easier to shape.

Option 2: Black Sugar Sesame Filling

  1. Place 1/2 cup black sesame seeds in a large skillet over medium-low heat and toast, tossing occasionally, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. (Alternatively, toast for about 4 minutes in a 400°F oven or toaster oven.) Transfer to a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Add 1/3 cup black sugar, 1 tablespoon water, and 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil. Process until a very thick paste forms, stopping and scraping down the sides as needed. Transfer to a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes or up to 2 days to make it easier to shape.

Make the rice flour dough:

  1. Place 2/3 cup water and 2 tablespoons granulated sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat to make the syrup. Meanwhile, place 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sticky rice flour in a large bowl.

  2. Immediately pour the syrup into the rice flour. Using a rubber spatula, mix until a smooth dough forms — the dough should get stickier and stickier as you work with it. Form the dough into a ball with a rubber spatula or bench scraper and spoon 1 tablespoon neutral oil over it, covering all exposed surfaces. Cover the bowl in plastic wrap and let the dough rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Assemble and fry the dough balls:

  1. Spoon out 1 level tablespoon filling (about 15 grams) and roll between your palms to form a firm ball. If the filling is too dry, mix in a spoonful of hot water into the filling before trying again. Repeat until you have 10 balls (you will have leftover filling).

  2. Place 1/3 cup hot water and 1 tablespoon sticky rice flour in a separate bowl and whisk until a sticky paste forms. This is the “glue” for your sesame seeds. Pour 1/2 cup raw white sesame seeds into a shallow plate.

  3. Uncover the dough and touch with your hands: it should be much firmer and less sticky than before resting. Ideally, it should feel like fresh Play-Doh — pliable, but keeps its shape with no cracking. If it’s too hard or cracking, mix in a tiny bit of boiling water. If too soft and sticky, add a bit more rice flour. Working quickly, briefly knead the dough just to incorporate any residual oil, then divide it into 10 portions (about 1 1/2 tablespoons or 28 to 29 grams each). Cover the portions with plastic wrap.

  4. Fill the sesame balls: Lightly oil your hands. Roll 1 portion of the dough between your palms to form a smooth ball, then flatten into a disk about 3 inches wide and 1/4-inch-thick. Wrap the disk around a filling ball, making sure there are no air pockets, and smoosh the edges together so the filling is completely sealed inside. Roll the ball between your palms until smooth and place on a plate or baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining fillign and dough balls, re-oiling your palms as needed. The dough should be very pliable, but if it’s sticking to your oiled hands, add a little more flour.

  5. Pour enough neutral oil into a wok, large high-sided sauté pan, or Dutch oven to nearly submerge a dough ball. (In a 14-inch wok or 5 1/2-quart Dutch oven, this is almost 8 cups oil.) Heat on high heat until 300°F. Meanwhile, fit a wire rack over a baking sheet. Brush each ball with the sticky rice paste, then roll in the sesame seeds until completely coated and return to the plate or baking sheet.

  6. When oil is ready, turn off the heat. Gently roll all the dough balls down the sides of the wok (or lower the balls with a spider into the oil). The dough balls should be emitting very tiny bubbles as they acclimate to the oil, about 3 minutes. After a couple of minutes, the oil temperature will drop to about 250°F and the bubbles should slow. At this point, turn the heat on to medium-low.

  7. Use wooden chopsticks or a spatula to gently move the balls around as they begin to fry. For the next 5 minutes or so, they will gradually expand and float as the water in the dough evaporates, and it’s very important to make sure the oil temperature stays below 300°F. It’s during this stage that your sesame balls may crack and leak — even if you did everything right! Sometimes it just happens, and if it does, use a strainer to scoop out any leaked filling immediately, as it can ruin your frying oil.

  8. Once the balls are fully floating, turn the heat to medium and use the underside of a skimmer or chopsticks to roll the balls around the pan in one direction — this ensures even cooking and that they each have a perfectly round shape. Continue frying the balls this way for at least another 5 minutes. The oil temperature should not exceed 320°F during this time. Continue cooking until the balls are golden-brown, about 7 minutes. Use a skimmer or slotted spoon to transfer the sesame balls to a wire rack. Let cool for at least 5 minutes before serving warm.

Recipe Notes

  • Sugar: If you can’t find black sugar, the best substitute is another type of unrefined sugar with high molasses content, such as Chinese brown sugar (红糖), muscovado, piloncillo, or jaggery. If using refined brown sugar such as Domino’s, add 1 tablespoon molasses to 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar.
  • Mung bean paste: For a smooth rather than chunky mung bean paste, use husked mung beans, which are yellow.
  • Storage: Store sesame balls in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days. If they’ve gone stale and hard, soften them in the microwave and toast in the oven, or air fry at 325ºF for 5 minutes to re-crisp.