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Herbs as Food: Hawthorn
Food as Herbs, Health, and Medicine
Winter Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(4) page(s): 10, 24, 25, and 34
Green leaves, white flowers, and red fruit, these are some markers of the family Crataegus. Indigenous to China’s north, some grow wild in other parts of the country. This is a plant well-known in other parts of the world, too, and it is as varied as it is ancient. Christ’s crown of thorns is thought to have been made using the hawthorn. Richard III, Henry VII, and Chaucer knew that and they touted it. The Chinese used it centuries earlier, and they still do. They knew and know it for its fruit and for its value as an herb. Originally found in the wild, the best hawthorn plants are cultivated today in many provinces of China including Shandong, Hebei, Henan, Liaonig, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Guangdong, Guangxi, and Yunnan.
Locating a tree can be difficult because cultivated ones and those in someone’s yard are often pruned and resemble a bush. This makes it easy to pick the fruit which is available in large numbers in those seasons they bear them. They are small and edible and can come from a tree that, unpruned, can stand at least thirty feet tall. The fruit on it is initially sour. The hawthorn fascinates because it has a sweet aftertaste, looks lovely as the fruits ripen, and also is a minor cause of concern.
People nearby the trees are anxious for the fruit to ripen. They watch this development and wish the maturation would speed up. Anxious for the fruit they may be, but more importantly they know that the unripe berries, as they are called, have a strong unpleasant and somewhat foul odor. This changes to a more tolerable one, when they are close to ripe. There is almost no aroma when the haw fruit is fully ripe. The flowers on the tree bear some of this odor and they have a bitter taste. This might be expect from this popular as an herb, after all, the Chinese believe that herbs heal better when they don’t taste good.
Crataegus is a member of the rose family. That means thorns are common on the small branches, and picking is no real pleasure. More commonly known as haw, these fruits are also known by other names including haw apples, Chinese haw, mountain haw, even whitethorn. The Chinese call them shan zha or shan zha gao, and they, too, know them by many different names. These include hong gao and shan li. These mean red fruit and mountain red, respectively. Some of their multiple names are related to differences in species, such as C. pinnatifida and C. monogyma Jacquin, others just because of local lingo.
Chinese children love ripe fresh haws, and they like them dried when mixed with sugar. They also adore candies made using haw fruit. They like when the fresh ones are coated with caramelized sugar. One can find them on street corners, particularly in cool weather. Looking for them in several cities, we behaved like kids and lined up to buy our share. Popular in winter, haw vendors peddle them putting five or six on a stick.
Some adults prefer their haw fruit preserved in wine or in syrup. People of all ages delight in the macerated ones that are dried and sold as wafer-thin disks the size of a quarter or as squares. They also love them when made into a fruit leather that is rolled and cut, then wrapped for sale. Senior citizens adore the haw in any form. That is because the haw is touted as a reducer of arthritic pain. Those with stomach pain like them because they are said to reduce aches caused by overeating, particularly excessive indulgence in meat and other fatty food.
Herbal doctors and those who practice other forms of Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and grannies recommend the leaves of the haw tree when brewed as a tea. They also tout the fruit stewed as compote. Both are said to be good for general digestion. In addition, they find them fine for those with diarrhea because they help reduce loose stools and they replace any potassium the body has lost. Haw fruit helps prevent scurvy, too, as the fruit is high in Vitamin C. It is also an effective way to reduce high blood pressure and help those suffering from heart failure. TCM doctors even say that it prevents future angina episodes, is good for the qi, and great for circulation.
Western science confirms that haw fruit improves blood flow to all areas of the vascular system, improves arterial renewal, dilates blood vessels, and reduces blood pressure. They advise that it is an excellent source of potassium, nearly as good as in bananas, and that it has considerable iron and calcium. What they have yet to confirm is how much haw is a good dose, and for how long should anyone take it.
Philosophically, TCM practitioners report that haw is both sweet and sour, warm in nature, and strengthening for the stomach. Western and traditional doctors recommend haw for many types of stomach conditions, not just those caused by too much eating or drinking. Research reports indicate a few tablespoons of the fruit helps those who are anemic and those with polyps on their vocal chords.
A compendium of early Chinese written records includes considerable use of haw in the food/medicinal literature. Bencao published in 1602, a most famous materia medica, discusses almost nineteen hundred plant varieties and more than eleven thousand prescriptions. Haw is among them in this compilation of earlier printed materials. Some early writings speak of hawthorn’s value eliminating food retention, invigorating blood circulation, and removing food stagnation. They also mention using haw for relief of postpartum abdominal pain.
A rather old recipe, source not documented, speaks of sweetened haw, tang shan cha. To make it one needs to make a hole in the top of the small fresh fruit, then remove its seeds. It goes on to recommend making a thick sweet syrup and dipping the haw fruit in it. This is not too different from what is found sold by local vendors in winter. The recipe, interestingly, advises to serve it cold.
Another early use of haw in a recipe is called Fried Cakes or Chien Shan Chan. This recipe makes a batter with eggs and haw flour; they grind the dried fruit to do so and call this haw, flour cakes perhaps after they pulverize it, they pack together The recipe tells the reader to mix and fry small amounts in sesame oil, and to serve the cakes warm. Still another recipe makes something similar to a fancy almond curd. It mixes fresh haw fruit, cherries, and ground nuts (presumably ground almonds) with water-softened agar agar. It says to cut the gelatinized product into small pieces when cold and set. Many other recipes use haw fruit. It is common to read those that make a jelly of haw fruit; some say to spread it on slices of different fruits.
A more modern recipe for haw recommends marinating pork in previously boiled water cooked with haw. Then they say to fry the meat. Yet another suggests two tablespoons of flour mixed with a cup of boiling water as a batter for dipping pork and other meats before frying them.
One ancient herbal decoction says to make haw tea using petals. Another says to do likewise with the fruit. And a third says to make the decoction with both. Two of the three offer words of caution. The general advice is that one should not drink more than two or three cups full on any single day. That same recommendation came with a recipe for a haw alcoholic beverage made putting cooked haw in clear mao tai.
In herb stores and large Asian supermarkets, haw fruit is sold whole or sliced, and both air dried. They sell ground haw leaves, and haw flowers. Some fruit is available dry and charred. It is in this form that haw has its greatest effectiveness in its elimination action working well on undigested meats. The charred fruit can also be found ground and mixed with ground wheat or barley sprouts, which an herbalist advised increases its effectiveness.
Aside from eating the fruit fresh or dried or as haw wafers or candy, haw can be boiled in water or wine or a stronger alcoholic brew, then cooled. This liquid is recommended as a chaser for those needing to take a very bitter medication.
As a child, I recall downing dozens upon dozens of haw wafers, which a vendor told me were mixed with more starch than sugar, and then dried. I found them as an inexpensive replacement for the candy called 'Necco Wafers' that my allowance would not allow. Now as an adult, I use the same wafers in thick soups, in stews, and in many casserole dishes, particularly Shanghainese ones. A few of these circles add background sweetness and bring out flavors of the other ingredients, a large number add a low level of sweetness. When a dish, Chinese or western, calls for sugar, replacement with this form of haw fruit provides better taste and improved texture.
Many years ago in Hong Kong when eating a very fancy rich meal at the Shanghai Club, a captain noticed that I was making frequent trips to the ladies room. After one such visit, he was standing at its door with a fruity drink something like a vodka collins. He said, may I bring this to your table to make you feel better. Ashamed to refuse, I accepted. As I slowly sipped this mildly sweet low-alcohol drink, its curative properties settled my stomach. Soon I was feeling better and not needing to leave the table. His thanks was an extra tip added to the one on the table and many thoughts back to his kindness.
Using haw is worth trying. The recipes below are delightful and delicious. While the drink I had did cure me, unfortunately I never learned its contents, so it is not among them. But those that are, will bring good feelings and good taste to those who try them.
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