Five Things to Know About… Tianjin Fried Dough Twists

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to visit Tianjin, a port city about 200km from Beijing, you will probably have seen shops and street vendors selling Tianjin Mahua (fried dough twists). But how much do you know about them? Read on for five essential facts to know about this special snack food!

Tianjin is most famous for fried dough twists

Although fried dough twists (天津麻花 Tiānjīn máhuā) are found in many other places, such as Chongqing where they are sometimes spicy, they are usually regarded as a Tianjin specialty. More than 100 years ago, on the west side of the Weihai River in Tianjin, at the south end of the bustling and noisy Little White Buildings (小白楼), there was an alley called Eighteenth Street. There used to be a small fried dough twist shop in the alley, named “GuiFaXiang(桂发祥)”. This is the origin of the name of the most famous brand of fried dough twists, Guifaxiang Eighteenth Street Fried Dough Twists.

There are different stories about its origins

One story is that, in ancient China, people celebrated a three-day festival in which they were not allowed to use fire, so in order to eat, people needed to prepare food that did not spoil easily, before the festival. This prompted the invention of the original form of Mahua: fried dough with honey, which could be kept for weeks without going off. 

In another ‘tail’ of the origin of Mahua, Mahua was created as a symbol of  revenge on scorpions who kept stinging people. Wheat dough was twisted into the shape of the scorpion’s tail, then fried and eaten. 

Mahua covered in sesame seeds

Traditionally they were made with two types of dough

The dough is rolled into strips, which are ‘white strips’ (白条) and ‘sesame strips’ (麻条). ‘White strips’ were ordinary dough made from flour and water, and ‘sesame strips’ were dough with sesame seeds added.

More types appeared in the 1950s

After Guifaxiang Eighteenth Street Fried Dough Twists’ public-private partnership in 1956, various sizes of twists of different flavors began to appear. Before this, fried dough twists sold in shops in Tianjin were limited to just three types: two or three white strips twisted together without pinching the end called ‘rope head’ (绳子头), two white strips and one sesame strip twisted together called ‘Hua Lihu’ (花里虎), and two or three sesame strips twisted into a ‘Ma Zhou’ (麻轴). Nowadays there are many varieties. A strip of crispy filling containing a variety of ingredients is often sandwiched between the white strips and the sesame strips, and the different fillings give different flavors. Guifaxiang Eighteenth Street Fried Dough Twists are filled with crispy fillings including osmanthus (桂花), ginger (姜), peach kernels (桃仁) and sweet wax gourd strips (瓜条).

They are a popular snack in Panama

Brought over by Chinese immigrants in the 1800s, fried dough twists are now easily found in Panama, where they are called mafa!

Have you ever tried Tianjin Mahua? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below. We always love hearing your thoughts and insights! 

Photo Credits
– Cultural Keys; David Boté Estrada on Flickr (1 ; 2)

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