Category Archives: Asian

Chinese Traditional Snack: Tanghulu

Tanghulu, or crystalline sugar-coated haws on a stick, do not require much promotion among young sweet-lovers in Beijing, despite the increasing competition from new generation snack foods like potato chips, popcorn and chocolate.

About 20 centimeters long, bright red in color with a perfect sweet-and-sour taste, tanghulu are a much-loved traditional confection in the capital city.

Every year as the weather cools down, tanghulu sales start heating up on almost every street corner in the city. Mobile food vendors carry large straw or plastic poles with dozens of tanghulu stuck in them as they make their rounds from one neighborhood to another.

Each vendor has his or her own distinct, rhythmic call. Many of the food stalls in parks, supermarkets or along the roadside add tanghulu to their menus. Buyers can watch the stall owners making the snack on the spot.


“Tanghulu has been my favorite sweet since I was a kid,” said Ma Long, a 27-year-old native Beijinger who works for a foreign company. “Childhood memories of tanghulu still linger in my mind today.”

Back in those days, most children couldn’t afford expensive treats and tanghulu, which cost about one jiao (1 US cent) each, were always the most popular, Ma said.

“Every afternoon on my way home from school, I liked to buy a tanghulu,” Ma recalled.

Although all kinds of snacks are available nowadays, made by either local or overseas manufacturers, Ma remains a staunch tanghulu fan.

“Nothing is more satisfying than eating a tasty tanghulu on a cold day,” Ma said. Ma’s passion for tanghulu is shared by many young adults including 25-year-old Wang Yan, a primary school teacher in Beijing.

“When I was young, my mother once warned me if I kept eating so many tanghulu, I would lose all of my teeth,” Wang recalled.

But the mother’s words did not dampen the young girl’s love of the snack. Every winter, she continued to spend most of her pocket money for tanghulu.

“Even now I can’t resist tanghulu whenever I see them in supermarkets or at streetside snack stands,” said Wang.

Though tanghulu are also popular in many other cities in North and Northeast China, they have become sort of unofficial, non-dancing logo of Beijing.

Auspicious symbol

For many Beijing people, tanghulu is not only a tasty treat, but also an auspicious symbol and highlight of the traditional temple fairs held during the Lunar New Year holidays in Beijing.

Tanghulu sold at the Changdian Temple Fair in Xuanwu District are regarded as the most auspicious ones by many Beijingers.

Dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the temple fair at Changdian was resumed in 2001, after a 37-year halt, and is now one of the largest such fairs in the capital city.

Many of the tanghulu sold at the fair are about one meter long and decorated with colorful flags on the top.

“A visit to the temple fair is not complete without buying one of these huge tanghulu,” said Ma.


Generally most buyers don’t eat them.

They take them home as a kind of auspicious token, which they believe will bring them good luck, fortune and prosperity in the coming new year.

Long history

Legend has it that tanghulu date back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Once an imperial concubine of Emperor Guangzong (1147-1200) fell seriously sick and the court physicians failed to find an effective treatment. The worried emperor knitted his brows in despair every day.

Then a doctor from outside the court volunteered to try and cure the concubine’s illness. After examining the patient thoroughly, the doctor wrote out a simple prescription: Simmer haws in sugar and water, and eat five to 10 of them before each meal.

The doctor said the concubine would get well in less than two weeks if she followed the prescription.

Neither the emperor nor the court physician believed the doctor’s words. But unexpectedly, the concubine got better and better and eventually recovered.

The story of the miraculous cure and the making of the healthy food quickly spread among the common people. Some food vendors began putting haws on bamboo skewers and selling them as snacks, and after a bap tism in hot sugar syrup, they became the tanghulu we know.

It was said that the first tanghulu had only two haws: a small one on top and a big one on the bottom, which made the treat look like a hulu , or bottle gourd.

This is why they are called tanghulu today, which means “candy bottle gourd” in Chinese.

And the name has stuck despite the fact that most tanghulu include four to eight haws and don’t look the least bit like a candy gourd today.

Back in the early 1900s, the most-sought after tanghulu were sold in food stores in the Dong’an Market in downtown Beijing. Most of these stores were not very large, but enjoyed a booming business every day.

In addition to haws, a dazzling variety of ingredients such as kumquats, yam, water chestnuts and Chinese dates are used to make tanghulu. But they are all made in pretty much the same way.

Take haws, for example. Wash the haws, take out the seeds, put the haws together on a bamboo skewer, then dip it into boiling syrup and take it out and allow it to cool to harden the syrup.

Ingredients like yams and water chestnuts have to be steamed before being made into tanghulu.

The most attractive varieties are sugar-coated haws with fillings. Each haw is cut open, filled with sweet bean paste, and then trimmed with the edible kernels of melon seeds.

Many tanghulu-makers stress that heat control is the key element in making good tanghulu. If the temperature of the syrup is too low, the tanghulu will be sticky; if the syrup is over-heated, candied coating of the tanghulu will look dark and taste bitter.

Among the many tanghulu makers, only a few have established fame or secured trademarks for their brands.

One famous tanghulu-maker in old Beijing was Xinyuanzhai, one of the oldest shops in the city that made and sold traditional snack food.

Built during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the store was particularly well-known for its special tanghulu product called tangdun.

Tangdun were made with only one large haw,although they were prepared in almost the same way as regular tanghulu. They were juicy and crispy and had a perfect combination of sweetness and sourness, and they were very popular up to the mid-1930s.

The golden days of both Dong’an Market and Xinyuanzhai have gone with the changing times. Few people remember Xinyuanzhai’s tangdun, while Dong’an Market has been replaced by the modern shopping mall, Sun Dong An Plaza, in 1998.

Surviving tradition

Many experts argue that the market still has an insatiable appetite for traditional snack foods like tanghulu and that the business still has potential for further growth.

Over the past few years, some tanghulu manufacturers from other provinces have begun to step into the market in Beijing. And they have come in with their own brand names, such as Gaolaotai, from northeast China’s Liaoning Province.

And Beijing manufacturers are feeling the heat of local competition.

Rising incomes and changes in lifestyle have created new demands that traditional snack foods do not fulfill, said Lu Zhonghua, manager of the Beijing-based Tanghuluwa Food Plant.

“For a long time, the business relied mostly on traditional techniques which had been passed on for generations,” Lu said. “With backward technology and poor management, we had trouble keeping our own tanghulu fresh and selling well.”

Now modern technology and modern management are becoming essential elements if one wishes to survive, Lu added.

Established in 2000, the company now operates over 20 outlets in the city. Most of them are located in large supermarkets and shopping malls. In addition to tanghulu freshly made on site, these outlets also offer packaged products, which have a longer shelf life.

“Packaged tanghulu are welcomed by customers who like to take them home to share with their families,” Lu explained.

Like Tanghuluwa Food Plant, many other snack stores are looking for ways to increase sales.

“Eating trends are changing and we have to display new products to adapt to market trends,” said Zhang Mei, who works in a tanghulu store in Sun Dong An Plaza. Every year, the snack bar presents new varieties with bananas, strawberries, cherries and tomatoes.

“Though the conventional types are still our best sellers, people are also interested to try new products,” said Zhang.

All About Chinese Chopsticks

As anyone who has been to a Chinese restaurant knows, chopsticks are the traditional implements for eating Chinese dishes. But far from being difficult and inefficient, they’re actually very versatile. They require a moderate amount of technique and practice, but in short order anyone can learn to use them well.

Chopsticks have been in use for over 3,000 years. They receive a mention in The Book of Rites dating from the Shang Dynasty that ruled China from 1600BC – 1100BC. In that time they’ve been made of ivory, bronze, bamboo and many other materials. Decorative designs may employ gold, silver, ceramic enamel or lacquer and other compounds. The Kuaizi Museum in Shanghai has collected over 1,000 pair, many of them centuries old.

Chinese chopsticks are usually about 8-10 inches long and often thickened or blunt at the ends. Both sticks are the same. Japanese chopsticks, by contrast, have narrowed ends, more pointed than their Chinese cousins.

To use Chinese chopsticks, place them both into one hand. Clamp them between the index finger and thumb, then move one to between the index and middle finger. The ends should be at the same point and both should lie in the same plane. In using Japanese chopsticks one stick protrudes slightly out from the other and they may be slightly twisted.

The trick is to have both a firm grip on each while being able to swivel one into the other in a pincer-like movement. That motion is performed by moving the index finger and thumb just slightly, opening and closing the pincer. You should be able to tap one end into the other and make an audible sound without losing grip on either.

Chinese dishes are prepared with all this in mind. Instead of large slabs of beef or whole legs or breast of chicken, meat is made bite-sized. Dumplings (Jiao Zi) are made so that they can easily be grasped between the chopsticks. The weight and size make it simple to hold them without opening the pincer too wide or falling out too easily. Rice can be scooped into the mouth by bringing the bowl up to the lips. Slurping soup is not considered rude in Chinese dining.

Despite the name, no stabbing or chopping is required or expected. In fact, in Chinese dining etiquette, such things would be considered impolite. There are several other traditional customs in the proper use of chopsticks, as well.

Sticking chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice is considered poor taste. They resemble the incense sticks that are placed in rememberance of the dead. Unlike some Western circumstances, the Chinese don’t generally mix meals with mourning. In Chinese culture, eating even an ordinary meal is a celebration. Instead, rest them on the side of the bowl or plate.

Waiving chopsticks in front of the face or at other diners is equally bad manners. Neither should one suck on the tips or lick the length of the chopstick. Nor are they used to pull a food dish toward one. Chopsticks may be provided in or with a central dish to scoop food onto one’s plate. Use them instead.

Healthy Chinese Eating

One of the things that always strikes me in China is how remarkably well so many people eat. It’s ironic that so many westerners think of Chinese food as being unhealthy – all those negative images of deep-fried food in gloopy sauces laden with MSG. Restaurant food is often richer, with more meat and fish, more oil and fewer vegetables, but home cooking tends to be centred on grains and vegetables, with small amounts of meat here and there.

And look, to the left and below, at what I found builders on a construction site eating when I visited Beijing in March: a widerange of fresh vegetables, freshly-cooked, some meat and beancurd, plenty of rice…  It’s hard to imagine British builders eating so healthily during their lunchbreaks. And yesterday, on the expressway to Hangzhou, my bus stopped at a service station where the refreshments on offer were mainly many different kinds of fresh fruit, and steaming zongzi (leaf-wrapped glutinous rice parcels) with a variety of fillings. Again, I couldn’t help comparing this kind of thing with the packaged foods sold at British petrol stations and motorway services…

Asian Moon Cakes

The flavors of fall are complex and earthy.
Chestnuts. Pumpkins. Sweet potatoes.
And, if you are Chinese, moon cakes. These are not the sugary pastries that Westerners usually think of when it comes to cake. Moon cakes are small, dense and more savory than sweet.

They are eaten during the mid-autumn festival, traditionally on the 15th day of the eighth moon by the Chinese lunar calendar. This year, it falls on Sunday. This is when the moon is at its fullest and brightest.

Festivities include music, dancing — and eating moon cakes.

The Greensboro Chinese Association and various Asian student groups at UNCG will host an Autumn Moon Festival on Saturday. The event, which also promotes the university’s new Asian studies major, will include cultural speakers and music, dance and martial-arts demonstrations. UNCG geography professor Susan Walcott will talk about the significance of moon cakes. Festivalgoers also can sample moon cakes there.lif_mooncake_23_

More on moon cakes

The palm-sized cakes are round or rectangular. They usually come in a set of four and are packaged in tin boxes.

Traditional moon cakes are made of sweet bean paste fillings, with a golden-brown, flaky crust. Some are filled with a golden duck egg yolk.

The top of the cake is usually embossed with the Chinese characters for longevity, harmony or the baker’s insignia.

It takes two to four weeks to prepare the bean paste, so most families just buy them from a bakery or store.

Through the years, moon cakes have evolved from a Chinese delicacy to something as common as ice cream. Modern versions of the cake may be fat-free or feature flavors such as lychee or chocolate.

Other Asian countries also have adopted their own versions of the fall delicacy. In Vietnam, the cakes may be filled with roasted chicken, shark fin or mung beans.

Cambodians may fill it with durian, a large, pungent fruit, found in southeast Asia.

In Indonesia, moon cakes may be filled with chocolate, cheese or milk.

And the Japanese version of the moon cake may contain chestnuts or azuki beans, which are small, sweet and red.

Moon cake folklore

* One legend is that the custom of eating moon cakes began in the late Yuan dynasty. It’s said that the Han people resented the Mongol rule of the Yuan Dynasty. Revolutionaries, led by Chu Yuan-chang, plotted to usurp the throne.

Chu needed a way to unite the people to revolt, without alerting the Mongol rulers of their plans. So, his close adviser, Liu Po-wen, came up with this plan: spread a rumor that a plague was ravaging the land and that only by eating a special moon cake, distributed by the revolutionaries, could they prevent the disaster.

So, the Han people received these cakes that when cut open, had the message: “Revolt on the 15th of the eighth moon.” This is how the people united to overthrow the Yuan. And that’s how moon cakes became an integral part of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

* Another legend dates back to ancient times when 10 suns appeared at once in the sky. The emperor ordered a famous archer to shoot down the nine extra suns. When the archer completed his task, the Goddess of Western Heaven rewarded him with a pill that made him immortal. When the archer’s wife found the pill and took it, she was banished to the moon. Legend says that her beauty is greatest on the day of the Moon Festival.