As a recent arrival to Beijing I hadn’t ever tasted a bingtanghulu (冰糖葫芦) before stepping off the plane, now the sugar coated snacks on sticks are one of my favorite treats. However, for the longest time I wasn’t able to figure out what kind of fruit I was eating. Yes, everyone said hawthorn berries but hawthorn berries in the US are smaller and no-one eats them. Someone else suggested crab-apples, I knew this was wrong, crab apples are much larger than the marble size fruit I keep stuffing in my face.
Turns out that if you eat a traditional bingtanghulu (and not one of the kiwi, strawberry, tomato, or orange ones, though they are equally delicious) you are actually eating Crataegus Pinnatifida also known as the Chinese Haw. The fruit comes from a tree that grows up to 7 meters in height, is native to Northeastern Asia, specifically northeastern China and Korea. The only edible part of the tree is the fruit, but that in itself seems to be popular enough, while sour and slightly bitter it is often dried, sweetened, or preserved, but can also can be eaten raw as is the case with bingtanghulu.
Chinese Haw, also according to some sources, is reported to have health benefits, shown to lower blood cholesterol levels and circulation, it is also used in traditional Chinese and Korean medicine for heart problems and abdominal distress. Although if you are eating them in the form of bingtanghulu, they are coated in melted sugar and it’s likely any health benefits will be greatly diminished.
The snack also has a lot more history than expected with some reporting that it can be traced back to the Song dynasty. There is also an accompanying legend that it saved the life of one of the Emperor Guangzong concubines when she was too ill to eat anything, a doctor prescribed that she eat 7-8 balls of the candied haw berry as an aid to digestive until she got better, which was happily effective.
For the rest of us who are just enjoying bingtanghulu as a delicious snack, you better get your fill fast, the winter time treat generally disappears at the beginning of March, forcing fans of bingtanghulu to indulge in other delicious street snacks.
Belly still rumbling? Check out more street snacks for those cold days.
Cover image from Nipic