When Mom decided to pack your lunch for school, you knew you were in for a treat. In your lunchbox, there would be a tiny, cylindrical firecracker package, wrapped with aluminum foil and a piece of red wrapping paper. “HAW FLAKES”, the wrapper would say. Whether it’s before or after your actual meal, your itchy mouth would prompt you to unwrap and unravel the deep red discs of candied hawthorn within. Made with hawthorn berries, sugar, water and red food colouring, these little disks seem to crumble on the first bite, yet chewy. They are sweet yet tart, and the little morsels were so fun to eat that you wished your mom packed a few more tubes for you to gnaw on.
We never really think about these little things that make up our childhood until one day, we see another young fledgling enjoying the morsel like we used to. Haw flakes are, perhaps, a more convenient take on the famous Chinese tang hu lu, which are skewered fruits dipped in sugar, with hawthorn berries being one of them.
The story of how hawthorn berries came to go as such: A businessman remarried after his first wife had passed on, but his second wife abhorred his first son. Knowing that his son went up to the mountains for work, she prepared his lunch with half-cooked rice, hoping that he would suffer and die from indigestion. It worked, for he complained of indigestion and grew emaciated over time.
The stepmother was gleeful.
One day, the son spotted berries growing up in the mountains. Curious, he ate them and found that they were thirst-quenching and refreshing. He ate them every day and soon enough, his indigestion was cured. The stepmother wasn’t happy, but his father brought these berries to the herbalist and sold them. That was how the hawthorn fruit came about. In Chinese, it is called ?? (Shan Zha), meaning mountains and the other character meaning to chop and hew, probably referring to the tree and the place where the boy found the fruit.
Traditionally, in China, haw flakes were given to children for deworming digestive tract parasites. But the hawthorn fruit itself actually has many medicinal properties, like helping with diseases of the heart and blood (e.g high blood pressure, high cholesterol and congestive heart failure). It also helps with digestion and relieves anxiety, as well as menstrual problems. Who knew our favourite childhood snack has so many more uses to it than just being a piece of plain old candy?
Of course, it is much healthier to consume the hawthorn berry itself, which has less sugar and artificial colouring. But do be warned that it is also much tangier and tart when taken in raw form!
In the spirit of bringing back something old to something new, people have been incorporating hawthorn berries into recipes, as other ways to have these delicious and nutritious gems.
Strawberry Haw Flakes Layered Cake
A tangy and sweet treat, this strawberry haw flakes layered cake is like the kueh lapis we know, but with bursts of berry flavour. The strawberry jam gives the cake its sweetness and the haw flakes, therefore, pairs very well and cuts through the sweetness with its tartness. A concoction by Wendy, you can find her recipe here on her blog.
Haw Flake Honey Garlic Meatballs
If you are looking for a unique flavour to your savoury dishes, you can try crushing up a tube of Haw Flakes and add them to your Honey Garlic Meatballs. It may sound weird, but the tangy hawthorn will complement the slightly sweet honey. Think of it like sweet and sour pork!
Instead of Cranberries…
Instead of using cranberry sauce for your turkey or ham, you can crush up some hawthorn berries as a substitute. They have a similar taste profile but hawthorn has the ability to prevent food stagnation! Alternatively, you could mix them both together into a sauce like in this recipe.
Hawthorn and Pork Ribs Soup
These fruits can also be used like you would dates — in soups! Chinese soups are known to use dates and wolfberries to sweeten their soups. Try using hawthorn fruits as an alternative, especially after a full meal, as these hawthorns can aid in digestion. Find the recipe here.