Tanghulu! This ancient Chinese sweet treat of skewered fruit encased in a hard sugar shell that has been around for centuries! Learn how to make this easy, enticing delicacy at home using just a few ingredients and your favorite fruit.
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Have you ever heard of Tanghulu? I hadn't until last year when a TikTok follower asked me to make my strawberry roses, tanghulu-style. Much to my surprise, the video I shared of my attempt on TikTok went viral overnight and has since then received more than 8.6 MILLION views!
Tanghulu is probably not something you'll make every day (though you it is quite easy!), but I can see the appeal of the traditional Chinese treat and why it's making its way into kitchens worldwide. Fruit is encased in a beautiful, clear sugar shell delivering a sweet, irresistible crunch with every bite. It's no wonder it's been a beloved treat for for ages.
This recipe is naturally gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan (just check your sugar brand to make sure they do not use bone char in processing.)
What is tanghulu?
Tanghulu (pronounced tahng-hoo-loo) is a popular Northern Chinese street food that consists of fruit skewered onto a stick and dipped into a boiled sugar syrup that hardens into a clear, crystalized sugar shell. It's essentially candy-coated fruit, similar to a candied apple.
Chinese hawthorn (also known as mountain hawthorn, Chinese haw, Chinese hawberry or shanzha in Mandarin Chinese), a small, sour berry, is the most common and traditional fruit used in tanghulu, but there are also many other varieties! Tanghulu strawberries, blueberries and grapes are also a fun way to enjoy the traditional treat.
Street vendors all over China and in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin can be found selling this popular snack. It is also referred to as "bing tanghulu", roughly translating to "frosty sugar gourd".
Origin and History
Dating back to the Song Dynasty over 800 years ago, Tanghulu has a history long before its fame on TikTok. (Obviously.)
Legend has it that the sweet-tart treat was developed by a the northern Chinese emperor's court physician in order to treat his favorite concubine, who had fallen ill; some sources say she was suffering from anorexia. (Bet you didn't think you'd be reading about concubines on a food blog!) The sugar-dipped hawthorn berries did the trick and tanghulu secured its place in Chinese street food culture.
These days, tanghulu is generally enjoyed in the wintertime, probably to avoid a sticky situation as hot weather months would make it difficult for the candy coating to hold up. It can be made with traditional haw berries or a variety of fruits (more on that below), and sprinkled with sesame seeds or coated in chocolate. Some vendors even create heart shapes and elaborate decorative skewers with the candied fruit.
If you're not planning a trip to China anytime soon but are craving a taste of tanghulu, I have great news: You can easily use this tanghulu recipe to make it at home with 3 simple ingredients (and some very careful cooking techniques).
- Sugar. Plain, granulated white sugar works best for this.
- Water. You will need about half the amount of water as of sugar. The tanghulu recipe is "flexible" as long as you follow this ratio.
- Fruit for dipping. Berries work great for tanghulu. Fruit that can be fully patted dry such as blueberries, strawberries, grapes and cherries will work best, as opposed to sliced fruit with a lot of moisture.
Prepare Fruit Skewers
First, you'll want to select the type of fruit that you want to skewer and candy. Strawberries make a great option since they're mildly tart, firm and pretty to look at! Blueberries, blackberries and grapes are among other fruits that would work well for this recipe.
Once you've selected and cleaned your fruit, make sure it's completely dry before threading it onto a skewer. (I used the bamboo skewers they sell in the barbecue section at the grocery store.) Have all of your fruit skewers lined up and ready to go on a plate or a baking pan before you get started on the sugar syrup portion of the recipe.
Set Up Drying Station
Set up an area where the skewers can harden and set. This part happens pretty quickly if you do it correctly, but no one wants sticky sugar syrup all over the kitchen, so prepare your work area accordingly. You can either set up a baking pan lined with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat (do not use foil because it will stick) on which the dipped fruit can be laid down to cool.
If you want to avoid pooling of the candy shell, you can create a cooling station for them to set in an upright position by filling a container with a wide mouth with something like lentils and placing the fruit skewers directly into the container after dipping. (A firm piece of Styrofoam or cake pop drying stand can also do the trick.)
Note: Initially, I thought to use rice in a glass since it did a great job of holding up the skewers, but when I posted this idea on TikTok, I was informed by various Chinese followers that this is actually a very disrespectful gesture in Asian culture as sticks placed upright in rice are actually symbolic of funerals and memorials where chopsticks are set vertically in a bowl of rice in memory of the departed. It is considered a rude, and even unlucky, gesture. I was glad that they shared this with me because otherwise I would have never known!
Make Sugar Syrup
Next, make the sugar syrup by combining the sugar and water in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Once the mixture comes to a boil, do not stir it as this can cause the sugar to crystalize.
Bring the mixture to a boil until it comes to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. I suggest using a heavy-bottomed saucepan, and using a candy thermometer to take a temperature reading of the mixture so that you know it's at the correct stage for candying.
If you don't have a candy thermometer, you can try to gauge when the sugar syrup is ready by monitoring the bubbles (they become smaller, faster and more "high pitched"). The end of a skewer dipped into the sugar syrup and then dunked into a glass of ice water should harden into hard candy immediately if it is at the correct temperature for dipping.
Once the syrup has come to temperature, work quickly dipping the skewered fruit into the mixture, twirling it to coat it all the way around. Allow the excess to drip off into the saucepan and then immediately place the skewer upright to cool and finish hardening.
Repeat with all fruit skewers, but work quickly. The sugar will continue to cook and will eventually become darker and harder to work with. Once the sugar syrup becomes light brown, remove it from the heat so it doesn't scorch in the pan.
I like to work in small batches when I'm making more than a handful of tanghulu skewers because it is difficult to keep the sugar syrup at a consistent 300 degrees! The best way is to remove the saucepan from the burner once the syrup reaches the correct temperature.
That's it! Enjoy the tangulu fruit immediately once it's cooled. I have read that it can be stored in an airtight container, but I have never had luck with keeping the candy from melting for more than a few hours.
You'll need to have half as much water as you do sugar to achieve tanghulu-style candying. In this case, I used 1 cup of sugar to ½ cup water. It's easy to multiply this recipe as needed.
Yes, but it's a bit harder to tell when the proper stage is reached for the sugar to fully harden. You can tell the sugar syrup is ready for dipping when it is very lightly golden and the the bubbling is a bit higher-pitched. Dip the end of a skewer into the mixture and then dunk it immediately in ice water. It should harden immediately into hard candy when it's ready.
The sugar should harden immediately if you've brought the sugar to the correct temperature --300°-310°F or "hard crack candy stage". Once you dip the fruit in the boiling syrup, give it a swirl and carefully remove it. As it cools, the sugar will harden.
I've found that the easiest way to remove the hardened sugar "candy" out of the pan is to fill the pan with a bit of warm water and place it back on the stovetop over medium high heat. Swirl the pan every so often until the water comes to a boil. Eventually the hardened sugar will dissolve!
Stirring the sugar syrup while it boils can cause crystallization, which you do not want. (This article explains the science behind what happens when you're making candy.) I suggest stirring the sugar and water before heating to fully combine before it starts to boil.
Done properly and sealed in an airtight container, tanghulu can last up to 2 weeks depending on the type of fruit used. Any cuts or moisture on the fruit will make the candied outside soften and "weep" (It'll get runny and sticky).
- 6 bamboo skewers
- 1 heavy-bottom saucepan
- 1 candy thermometer
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- ½ cup water
- 6 strawberries
- 18 green grapes
- Skewer fruit onto bamboo skewers in desired pattern. Set up a station where you can place the skewers upright after dipping. (See above for tips.)
- Combine water and sugar in a saucepan; stir to combine. Place on a stove top over medium high heat.
- Bring the mixture to boil until the sugar dissolves. Try not to stir the mixture once it comes to boil or it could form sugar crystals.
- Continue to boil the mixture until a candy thermometer reaches 300°-310°F. (See notes below for ways to tell if the sugar syrup is ready without a thermometer.) Once it comes to hard crack candy temperature, reduce the heat to low or remove the saucepan from the burner.
- Working quickly, dip the fruit skewers carefully in the mixture and swirl to fully coat. Gently tap the skewer on the side of the saucepan and let any excess drip off.
- Place the skewer upright to cool.
- Repeat the process with the rest of the skewers. The tanghulu should harden within the minute and should be eaten once cooled.