What the heck are hawthorns? You may be wondering. Sounds like it could be a grass or the relative of an herb. Well, it’s actually a small fruit, much like a crabapple, prevalent in northern China. Lightly sweet, but mostly mouth-puckeringly tart, these little babies come into their own during the winter season. They’re sold as street food, in the form of skewers of candied fruit (called tang hu lu). These were one of my favorite things to eat as a little one, bundled up in sweaters, coats, and hats, sucking on a hawthorn on a stick. Oh the memories.
Hawthorn are also used in medicines and tonics to aid digestion, probably due to its high acidity. In terms of other snacks, its juices and pulp are made into a block of jelly, reminiscent of guava jelly. Another are hawthorn flakes, small round flake candies, almost like fruity communion wafers.
My grandfather and I hauled ourselves, ironically, over to the Walmart (in Changchun, China) to do a bit of hawthorn shopping. Amongst the rows of exotic fruits, chives and wild greens, tubers and fresh nuts, we spotted the little darlings, all hard and deeply red, fresh still with branches and leaves intact. We brought home about two kilos, ready to make my grandfather’s famous hawthorn soup. It’s like a dessert, served chilled, and after dinner to help with digestion. After his daily afternoon nap, we set out to work seeding about a bit more than one kilo of hawthorn. In non-metric speak, that’s almost three pounds. These are some of my favorite times with him, when he teaches me techniques and old recipes. No secrets here. We chat and drink tea, and even the silences are oddly comforting. Soon my grandmother comes out to join us from her nap, sneaking a hawthorn when we’re both not looking, her face puckering guiltily afterward from the sour fruit. We let the hawthorn cook and cool on the windowsill, as it’s a blustery 2 degrees Celsius outside.
After our dinner of smoked duck, congee, and steamed crabs, my grandfather filled up bowls of the cool, syrupy soup. Sweet, tangy, and simply light, what a refreshing palate cleanser after a heavy meal.
Since hawthorns are not readily available in the States, cranberries would be a great substitute for this recipe. But if you ever do find yourself walking around Beijing or any northern city mid-winter, do try a sugary skewer of hawthorns. It’ll make your mouth pucker and your heart warm.
1 pound hawthorn
1-2 quarts water
3/4 cup sugar
2 Tbsp honey
1. Wash and stem the hawthorn. Make a horizontal slice around the midsection of the fruit, and gently pry open with your fingers. Use the tip of a paring knife to carefully pull out the seeds. Repeat with the remaining fruit.
2. In a large stockpot, bring the water to a boil (use 2 quarts if you prefer a more watery soup). Add the hawthorn and sugar, and simmer for 25-30 minutes. Turn the heat off, and stir in honey.
3. Let come to room temperature and chill until completely cooled. Serve cold.