Halloween is long gone but in China the season of candied fruit is yet to peak. As the temperatures drop the average blood sugar level all around China rises rapidly, all because of Bingtanghulu – the unofficial winter snack of Northern China.
What is Bingtanghulu?
Classic bingtanghulu is sugar-coated Chinese Hawthorn (山楂 – shān zhā) skewered on a stick made of bamboo. Chinese Hawthorn is round and red, just like apples but smaller. It tastes a bit sour so with the sugar they form the sweet and sour flavor Chinese people love so much.
The full name of this snack is 冰糖葫芦 (bīng táng hú lu) but it’s also very common to say only 糖葫芦 (tanghulu). The name literally means ‘frosty sugar gourd’. Why gourd? Nobody really knows, maybe it’s because the thing used to hold all the skewers together looks like a gourd. Perhaps it even was a gourd in ancient times. In Northeast China tanghulu is known as 糖梨膏 (táng lì gāo), in Tianjin as 糖墩儿 (táng dūnr), and the area of Fengyang City in Anhui Province it is simply known as 糖球 (táng qiú – sugary balls).
Earlier versions of tanghulu can be traced back as far as Song dynasty. By the era of Qing Dynasty it has become a nationwide traditional snack.
It is said that bingtanghulu had saved the life of the most beloved concubine of emperor Guangzong of the Song Dynasty after she got sick and couldn’t eat anything. The court doctors were all baffled so emperor desperately turned to the people for help. One common doctor came up with the solution which was to eat 7-8 candied hawthorns with each meal. Apparently it worked and to this day it is said that bingtanghulu can help your digestion.
Healthy or not at the end of the day it’s sugar and that means calories. Since we are dealing with street food, it’s hard to say how many calories exactly we are talking about but the common opinion on Chinese diet websites and forums is it’s about 400 calories a stick. On the bright side the fruit itself contains a healthy dose of Vitamin C and other bonuses.
Tanghulu has evolved over the years and now it offers a wide selection of fruits on a stick. From strawberry to kiwi, from grapes to tangerine slices and all the way to mixed sticks which are decorated with nuts, sesame and beans.
One tanghulu stick costs 3 to 7 kuai but obviously it depends on what kind of stick your getting and where you are buying it. The classic one usually costs about 5 yuan.
Bingtanghulu season lasts about six months from October to March. By April it’s pretty much gone with the wind.
In Chinese, tanghulu can also be use to imply someone is being childish or juvenile (but not necessarily in a bad way) or when you are able to see right through another person. Generally speaking, tanghulu triggers nostalgic memories:
The caption above reads: When you are little, happiness is a simple matter, growing up, simple matters are a happiness.
If you have problems with sticks or stickiness, you should know that bingtanghulu has a cousin called Bingtangxueqiu (冰糖雪球 – bīng táng xué qiú – frosty sweet snowball). It’s pretty much the same deal of hawthorn berries and sugar only they come in a bag and the sugar is powdered rather than glazed. A bag with 20 or so little snowballs is sold for 5 kuai.
The opening photo ‘Old Lady Eating Tanghulu’ was taken from here.