All About Tanghulu, the Colorful (and Controversial) Snack Beloved By TikTok

Bon Appétit

With their glassy coatings and bright colors, tanghulu is a treat that has gone from traditional Chinese street snack to social media sensation. It’s most recognizable as a stick that’s about eight inches long stacked with bright red hawthorn berries, like strings of rubies clustered atop food carts. The candied skewer has origins in ancient China, but recently, it’s shapeshifted—becoming modernized by new purveyors and TikTok stars incorporating a rainbow of new fruit variations.

Here’s everything you need to know about tanghulu, why you’re seeing it everywhere, and what the debate is all about.

What is tanghulu?

Tanghulu is a sweet-and-sour treat of skewered candied fruit, traditionally hawthorn berries, encased in crystallized sugar. It’s said to have originated in northern China during the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279), when the emperor’s favorite concubine supposedly fell sick and a two-week diet of tanghulu healed her. (It then apparently became a favorite snack of the royal family.) Tanghulu literally translates to “sugar gourds” in Mandarin, the bubbled shapes resembling the calabash gourds that were symbols of good luck in ancient China. Today, in China, tanghulu often appears around the new year and Lunar New Year as a festive food item, where the baubled snacks are displayed and sold in parks, street stands, food markets, and temples. “The fruit, leaves, and flowers of hawthorn are considered to have herbal medicinal properties for addressing a range of heart, digestive, and circulatory issues,” Nancy N. Chen, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says.

Unlike other types of candied fruit, what makes tanghulu unique is the way the fruit is candied. It doesn’t require any special tools: Fruit is skewered and dipped into boiling sugar, coated, shaken a bit to remove the excess, and, oftentimes, immediately plunged in ice water. The process creates a cool, hard shell that cracks and splinters upon biting. The sourness of the hawthorn offsets the sweetness, and the crunchy outside belies a soft interior.

Why am I seeing it everywhere?

As Chinese people started immigrating to neighboring countries like Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore in the following dynasties—particularly between the Yuan and Ming dynasties, when many northern Chinese people fled to Korea—the snack became a part of other cuisines, also largely sold in areas with street vendors.

Today, different variations of tanghulu have sprung up in these regions. Most notably, vendors have swapped hawthorn berries for strawberries, grapes, whole peeled tangerines, tomatoes, pineapple, even marshmallows. While this transformation began in China, it’s accelerated in Korea. Celebrities like K-pop group Blackpink’s Jennie have played a role in popularizing the snack in South Korea, notably when she and bandmate Jisoo made it in their 2020 Netflix documentary Blackpink: Light Up the Sky. And as the Hallyu wave, a concerted government effort to disseminate Korean pop culture, continues to make its way through Western countries, it’s migrated into the American cultural periphery.

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As a result, tanghulu has become more commonly associated with any kind of candied fruit, rather than hawthorn specifically. The variations “reflect creative approaches when certain food items might not be available,” Chen says.

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Author:Steffi Cao |

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