Tanghulu (糖葫芦) is a popular Chinese snack that can be sweet, sour or both at once. If someone is selling it nearby, you’ll smell it from miles away. Just follow the caramelized scent until you find the brightly-colored sugar-coated fruit on a stick!
Also known as bingtanghulu (冰糖葫芦) the name can be translated as “frosty sugar gourd” although no one knows where “gourd” comes from. The most commonly seen tanghulu is made with hawthorn berries. Until I came to China, I had no idea that hawthorn even existed. In case you know as little about the mysterious berry as I did, here’s some info:
Hawthorn is a useful plant and it’s flowers, leaves and berries are commonly used in medicines for heart disease, blood pressure irregularities, digestion problems and many others. It looks like a small red apple the size of a strawberry. It can be eaten raw but it’s extremely sour and has an unusual texture. Instead, it is used in jams, wines, fruit leather and the reason we are all here: tanghulu!
I’ve eaten two different kinds of hawthorn tanghulu. My favorite has the berries flattened and I assume preserved in some sort of way, because they are quite sweet on the inside. After they are dipped in caramelized sugar with sesame seeds sprinkled on top.
The second kind of hawthorn tanghulu is simply raw berries on a skewer. It is much more sour than the flattened kind, less crunchy and full of seeds that you need to constantly spit out. I strongly recommend trying a different kind on your first try. Luckily, there are so many to choose from! You can use a variety of fruits and even tomatoes to make tanghulu.
There is no fruit-vegetable debate in China when it comes to tomatoes. You will find them in fruit juices and the fruit section of buffets. Anyway, cherry tomatoes are a common alternative to hawthorn but they also use melon slices, grapes, plums and strawberries.
While tanghulu seems like a relatively healthy treat, especially when it’s made out of “negative-calorie” strawberries. But don’t be deceived, it is estimated that they have 400 calories on average. That’s just as many as a double cheeseburger from McDonald’s! But at least it’s rich with vitamin C.
In China, the tanghulu is more than just a traditional snack. According to legend, it saved the life of emperor Guangzong’s most beloved concubine during the Song Dynasty. She got sick and was unable to eat anything. The emperor was desperate when his doctors failed and asked the villagers for help. A common doctor suggested eating 7-8 candied hawthorns with each meal – this saved her life! For more interesting facts about tanghulu, go here.
Have you tried tanghulu? Share your experience in a comment below!