The Chinese Hawthorn

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Hawthorn Berries

Today, I received this email from a Good Food listener named Sylvia:

Last week, you talked with David Karp about the Mexican fruit tejocote, and he mentioned humorously that only birds touched tejocote’s cousin fruit, hawthorns.

Chinese hawthorn (Crataegus pinnatifidais) is actually a pretty common fruit grown in high altitude areas in northern China. It is nicknamed Hong Guo (red fruit) or Shan Li Hong (red in the mountains), in some dialects, because of its bright red color. The flesh is light pink, and each fruit contains about ten hard stones inside. It is very tart and slightly tangy.

Hawthorn is mostly eaten as a snack rather than a fruit. It is usually washed, sometimes even de-pitted and stuffed with sweet red bean paste, and then put on a skewer. The last step is to dip the whole skewer in melted maltose to form a transparent and crispy sugar crust. To kick it up a notch, sesame seeds can be sprinkled on as well.

Chinese Hawthorns on Skewers

Hawthorn on skewers, by itself or combined with other fruits are one of the staple snacks in bazaars around Spring Festival, the traditional Chinese lunar new year. Some snack stands sell deluxe skewers as long as a meter in length. Those are one of every kid’s fantasy items for sure.

For me, I grow up enjoying hawthorn preserve my Mom prepared every winter. I have to admit that she is not the best cook in the world, but she makes a mean hawthorn preserve.

She starts with equal amount of washed hawthorn and sugar. And a little bit of water once and for all. No other ingredients needed. Carefully bring the mixture to a boil, and simmer it for a hour or so with stirring every now and then, until hawthorn fruits fall apart in the red juice. She would transfer the liquid and flesh to a wide neck glass bottle and discard the stones at the bottom of the pot. The warm mixture will be stored on the window sill outside. (We did not own a refrigerator back then.) The below freezing temperature in northern China and the pectin from the fruits turn the mixture into a sweet and tart preserve overnight.

We eat it with a spoon or spread it on plain steamed buns. Hmmm, just the thought of it makes my mouth water.

My husband and I came to the States in 1998. Every time we travel back to meet family, we plan our trip around the best season, early fall. Hawthorn harvest is usually later in the year. So I have not had chance to taste my Mom’s hawthorn preserve for more than a decade. That makes it even more nostalgic for me.