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December 8, 2011

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Discover the magic of hawthorn this Christmas

AMIDST the holiday cheer and overwhelming Christmas sales already spreading throughout the city, you may not have noticed this humble fruit on your walks past Shanghai's ubiquitous produce stands.

Generally small in stature, the fruit of the hawthorn plant rarely exceeds 4 centimeters in length and 3 centimeters across. With their holiday-red pigmentation, shanzha, as they are known in Mandarin, look adorably like miniature apples.

Often overlooked in favor of the winter months' more publicly appreciated natural edibles -- such as mandarins and pomelos - hawthorns, if utilized correctly, provide a delicious and economical addition to your larder.

Well over 100 different species of hawthorn exist. While all species' fruit and structure share similarities, the Chinese hawthorn remains unsurpassed in terms of culinary usage.

Primarily farmed in provinces of Shandong, Shanxi, Henan and Hebei, the best shanzha are reported to come from Xinglong in Hebei. Understandably, fresh hawthorn is consumed and appreciated more in northern China than anywhere else, although in its dry form hawthorn can be found throughout China and in Chinatowns the world over.

The most familiar of shanzha preparations is tanghulu. Tanghulu are simply fresh hawthorn coated in sugar syrup that's been cooked to a hardball stage and left to cool on bamboo skewers. The end result?

Utter deliciousness that begins with the hardened sugar coating cracking under your teeth and yielding to the tang of fruit beneath.

Most popular in Beijing and Tianjin, tanghulu can also be found in Shanghai - although the number of vendors seems to have decreased in recent years.

When in doubt, follow the laughing children clutching sticks of little red fruit covered in a shiny candy shell.

Another method that can be more readily found in Shanghai is tangshanzha where fresh hawthorn is tossed in copious amounts of powdered sugar and left to slowly macerate. The sugar permeates the fruit while allowing the natural tartness of the hawthorn to still come through.

In terms of dried products, hawthorn can be directly sliced and dried into shanzhagan, popular in hot beverages and some sweet congees.

A personal favorite will forever be shanzhapian, where the flesh of the hawthorn is ground with sugar, dried into sheets and cut into little discs.

They are then stacked and packaged in little tubes, much like a roll of coins from the bank.

While shanzha can be found all year round in China, its true peak season is late fall through early spring. And when picking your fruit you want to be looking for firm smooth specimens.

If a fruit is pockmarked or yields when squeezed you are probably looking at something past it's prime. When you taste it, raw hawthorn should taste tart-like and slightly astringent but not unpleasantly so.

The most common and perhaps the easiest hawthorn preparation in Western cuisine is hawthorn jelly, popular in the UK and some parts of the United States.

When smeared over fresh-baked biscuits or scones, hawthorn jelly provides the perfect accent, sweet with just enough acidity and distinct enough that your guests know they're not just getting a jar of strawberry jam from the store.

The medical benefits of hawthorn have also long been appreciated in traditional Chinese medicine.

Dried hawthorn remains a regular prescription for indigestion and cardiovascular problems in TCM and recent scientific studies have unearthed of plethora of potential health benefits tied to the consumption of hawthorn and it's active compounds.

There have been studies linking hawthorn and its extracts to the treatment of high blood pressure, heart failure, insomnia, and more recently, skin cancer.

In short, hawthorn, while humble in appearance and unassuming in flavor, reveals a rich diversity that is all too easy to overlook. The natural produce of China demonstrates to all of us, professionals included, just how little we sometimes know about the world out there.

Experiment a little and you will be duly rewarded!

If all else fails, feel free to string small hawthorn with popcorn and decorate your Christmas tree accordingly - not a particularly culinary application perhaps, but enjoyable nonetheless and perfect for the festive weeks coming up.


500g hawthorn, 500g sugar, 150ml mineral water, 1 roll sterilized medical gauze (available at your local pharmacy)


? Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive pot and bring to a rolling boil.

? Boil vigorously for about 20 minutes or until fruit is completely cooked and falling apart, while breaking down fruit occasionally with a potato masher or immersion blender.

? Strain overnight through three layers of gauze into a clean container, preferably glass and enjoy over toast, biscuits, or perhaps as a garnish to your Christmas roast goose. As an alternative, add a spoonful to a glass of holiday champagne for a cocktail that is uniquely Chinese.

? The jelly will keep, if properly stored, for two weeks in the coldest part of your refrigerator.


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