With the bulk of my food experiences in China being more than ten years ago already, and with the continually changing norms of food import/export and larger Chinese consumer markets in the US, I constantly come across things that were once hard or impossible to find here in the States. These items tend to be the subjects of most of my posts on this blog, and today is no different. Today’s theme is the delicious hami* melon or hamigua (哈密瓜).
Since about 2011 I began seeing “hami” melons occasionally sold in US Asian markets, with my first sighting at the Niles, Illinois H-Mart. I excitedly bought one to take back to Wisconsin, only to later find it unripe, dry, and not so sweet. Granted, the bar was set pretty high. The melons in my memory (with the most delicious in my experience coming from Turpan, Xinjiang, nearby the city of Qumul–known as Hami in Chinese) were the juiciest, sweetest, longest (longer than a foot), and cheapest melons I’d ever had the pleasure to eat.
In Uyghur these melons are known as qoghun (قوغۇن) and they rank among grapes, dates, and tomatoes as big food exports to “China proper” and beyond.
The melons were so cheap and juicy, when a friend in Xinjiang asks you, “hey, are you thirsty?” you stop by a melon stand and quickly suck down the juicy flesh of a long wedge of hamigua rather than look for a bottled water vendor.
Today I took a long walk and ended up in Chinatown. I was thirsty, and I found one of several shops that carry such melons. The shop was better known for fish and seafood, but the melons looked pretty good too. The sign said in Chinese “Xinjiang hamigua 99¢/lb”. I bought one.
Upon closer inspection, the fruit is obviously not from Xinjiang. In Philadelphia and in the USA, we only rarely enjoy imports from the distant land of Xinjiang. Most commonly, if we are eating Xinjiang produce at all, we are eating ketchup that is made with Xinjiang tomatoes. In other cases, we can find imported dried foodstuffs that are marketed as common “Chinese” products, without any mention of Xinjiang as the home province of origin. Finally, we can occasionally find other food items that make their way after being processed and packaged.
Other kinds of melon, cantaloupe for example, have in the past been described in Chinese as “hamigua”. This is likely the reason why we may see “Xinjiang” on signs at markets, letting us know these are the Xinjiang Hami, not the other ones.
Of course this melon did not come from Xinjiang. It is a product of a US company that manages farms in the US and Chile, called Sandstone Melons. You can learn about Sandstone and their hami melons (marketed in English as “Honey Kiss Melons”) via their website here. This is one of the many new foods that is now grown in North and South America for US consumption.
This melon was sweet, as was guaranteed by its label, but it paled in comparison to Xinjiang’s melons. It was hard and crunchy as opposed to lush and juicy. Perhaps it is off season, or perhaps it could have been riper. Despite its not exactly living up to my memory, it certainly was a contender compared to mediocre cantaloupe and musk melons from the standard grocery store chains. The flavor profile is similar to that of a cantaloupe melon, but these tend to be sweeter. And the shape is different.
Give it a try if you find your local market selling them. Better yet, travel to Northeastern Xinjiang to get the original version.
*I’m choosing not to capitalize since it is now a variety of melon in English, known not by the city name of Hami, as it is in Chinese.