Dragon’s Beard Sweet Is a Chinese language and Lunar New Yr Custom

Dragon’s Beard Sweet Is a Chinese language and Lunar New Yr Custom

Whilst a child with severely restricted endurance, I knew the dragon’s beard sweet from Jimmy Pan’s cart was definitely worth the wait. Each weekend for almost three many years, Pan judiciously crammed orders of the white, fluffy sweet from his stall in Toronto’s chaotic, cacophonous Pacific Mall. The sweet’s stretched sugar strands, wrapped round a crunchy core of peanuts, coconut, and sesame seeds, create a collection of textural sensations on the tongue: Some strands dissolve right into a delicate mass whereas others shatter into feuilletine flakes, earlier than the entire thing morphs right into a chewy, crunchy, jumble of nougat. Pan’s store crammed PacMall’s grid-like corridors with lengthy strains of locals and out-of-towners, who made the pilgrimage from New York, Milwaukee, Detroit, and so far as Los Angeles. Someplace in there, I used to be holding fingers with my mother, inching nearer to my prize.

As the preferred legend goes, dragon’s beard sweet (typically shortened to DBC) was served to imperial households way back to the Han Dynasty, getting its identify from an emperor’s remark that the sticky, hair-like strands of sugar mimic the legendary creature’s bearded whiskers (messy eaters are likely to sport comparable threads clinging to their chins after consuming the sweet too). The sweet is a nostalgic hallmark of many celebrations round Chinese language New Yr (also called Lunar New Yr, which takes place this 12 months on February 10), in China, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and immigrant communities elsewhere. A handful of scattered outposts produce the sweet in New York, San Francisco, Buena Park, California (not removed from Anaheim), Montreal, and Richmond, British Columbia (outdoors Vancouver).

Rising up with immigrant mother and father from Hong Kong who tended towards “not too candy” desserts, dragon’s beard sweet was an exception to the rule, an insulin-spiking deal with I devoured with reckless abandon. However the present at Pan’s stall was as a lot of a draw because the candy itself. As my mother would rifle via her pockets, I stood mesmerized by the grasp candymaker at work. Pan stretched ropes of sugar like he was taking part in the accordion, periodically slapping them onto a mattress of rice flour to separate the strands, sending residual flour mud ricocheting into the air like confetti.

“Many benefit from the ‘theater’ part and watching me pull and stretch the sweet,” Pan says. “Each piece is made by hand and folks know that ready is all part of the expertise. I can solely go as quick as my fingers let me.” Although he by no means stored monitor of what number of clients he served, Pan estimates he made as much as 500 items on a median weekend at PacMall, the place he now not operates his stall commonly. Even through the vacation rush, although, he by no means succumbed to the strain to rush as a result of it could compromise the sweet’s high quality.

A chef pulls dragon’s beard candy from a vat in a glass-enclosed stall.

Derek Tam displaying off his abilities at Dragon Papa.
Courtesy of Derek Tam

Although Pan exudes a seasoned confidence, the vacation rush places all DBC distributors underneath plenty of strain. Fifth-generation DBC maker Derek Tam of Dragon Papa Dessert in San Francisco has been crafting dragon’s beard sweet since he was 10 years outdated, however even he approaches Chinese language New Yr — and the Mid-Autumn Pageant, one other standard time for DBC — with some trepidation; the vacations comprise 80 p.c of his income.

“I estimate I promote 5,000 items mixed from these two main Chinese language holidays, however the remainder of the 12 months may be very quiet,” Tam says. Even through the hectic seasons, although, he stays a one man-show. “Whereas I’ve tried to rent extra folks to assist out, discovering expert labor may be very tough.”

DBC is notoriously labor intensive to make and the strategies are grueling to be taught. Tam says it takes almost two years of mentorship with any beginner earlier than he can decide whether or not they’re competent sufficient to rent frequently. “Sadly, I’ve cycled via many individuals. I preserve one out of each 10 folks I rent, not as a result of I wish to, however as a result of it’s a really difficult ability to grasp. In the event you don’t do it nicely, you possibly can instantly see and style the distinction in high quality.”

Basic recipes require cooks to warmth granulated sugar and maltose along with exacting precision, form them right into a molten puck, and increase that puck right into a lasso. Then, with deft fingers (and assistance from rice flour), they stretch, pull, and fold the sugar onto itself in a determine eight till silky, vermicelli-like strands seem, earlier than wrapping the threads across the filling.

“The right method comes from plenty of follow,” says Chris Cheung, proprietor of East Wind Snack Store in New York, who has developed his personal strategies — after a lot trial and error. “There have been instances I cooked the sugar on increased warmth, and it yielded pucks that had been too robust. I really feel that pulling the sweet rope 1 1/2 ft is healthier than 2 ft, and pulling chest excessive [rather] than at waist stage leads to a greater closing product. You pay attention to all this stuff.” Cheung additionally gleaned some transferable abilities from his coaching hand-pulling noodles. “The strategies are comparable, but it surely takes time to determine the character of the sugar. Now I can remodel one [candy] rope into about 12,000 strands in about 10 to 12 pulls,” he boasts.

Pan additionally factors out exterior components that may throw off the temperamental course of. “It’s all about mastering the method and understanding the local weather of anywhere you’re in earlier than you even start making it,” he explains. “For instance, if it’s a wet day, it may be just about unimaginable to make the sweet to the extent I need as a result of the surplus humidity within the air impacts the sugar crystals establishing correctly. Each day, components like whether or not it’s dry, damp, heat, windy, and/or humid are so essential to pay attention to.”

Plus, as soon as the whisper-thin threads are wrapped across the filling, the recent candies should be eaten instantly. The fragile strands harden into rocks in the event that they’re left to sit down for even a day. (Although cussed followers will nonetheless fortunately gnaw via solidified DBC. In my home rising up, even sweet that was a couple of days outdated — if it ever made it that lengthy — by no means went to waste.)

The challenges of constructing DBC, mixed with the boom-and-bust cycle of the vacations, has weighed closely on some distributors. Tam closed Dragon Papa through the top of the COVID-19 pandemic, transitioning to promoting sweet on-line and at meals festivals and different occasions. Pan is doing the identical, getting ready DBC at a handful of personal occasions across the new 12 months.

With out the DBC grasp on the helm, Pan’s store doesn’t have a transparent future. “I feel I’ll retire throughout the subsequent 5 years, and once I’m executed, the enterprise will likely be executed,” he says. So as to management his workload, Pan has by no means franchised, expanded, or employed extra staff. Although his desire is admirable, it has additionally left him with out an inheritor obvious.

Pink balls of wispy dragon’s beard candy, topped with flakes of toppings, stuck with skewers.

Colourful dragon’s beard at East Wind Snack Store.
Chris Cheung

“I attempted to show my nephew the way to make DBC, however after 9 months, he gave up and returned to Hong Kong to seek out one other job solely,” he says. Pan’s son Brian helps run day-to-day operations, however has expressed no want to take over as soon as his dad stops fully. “There’s nobody within the household who desires to take over the job as a result of it’s laborious, demanding, and never simple to manage,” Pan says. “I feel younger folks don’t favor to make it their work as a result of they don’t have the endurance for it.”

That’s not solely true of all youthful folks. With sources of dragon’s beard sweet dwindling within the U.S., some ingenious residence cooks on TikTok and Instagram have taken issues into their very own fingers — and put their very own twists on the traditional sweet. A couple of influencers and social media savvy cooks have modified the recipe by nixing the filling, calling for hacks like melting down Starburst sweet, utilizing corn syrup and vinegar, and including dyes to their concoctions to make DBC extra accessible and interesting to followers.

Some social media creators threaten to cut back DBC to a pattern, and purists like Jimmy and Brian Pan bristle at taglines that consult with DBC as “Chinese language cotton sweet.” But others see actual worth within the unfold of dragon’s beard sweet on-line. Patrick Li, whose household is from Hong Kong and who goes by Feed My Cellphone on Instagram, has shared his love for traditional DBC, however he additionally helps residence cooks who get inventive.

“Social media helps folks uncover meals and distinctive dishes that they weren’t conscious of earlier than. TikTok and Instagram, for my part, assist broaden everybody’s information of worldwide delicacies,” Li says. “Having seen a number of the movies that flow into on-line that play with totally different colours/components/flavors, it provides a sure novelty to it, which ends up in it going viral, as these unfamiliar see it as one thing ‘new.’” He provides that these residence cooks who go the additional mile to recreate the unique recipe will achieve a deeper understanding and appreciation for the sweet.

It’s not simply neophytes who mess with the sweet’s recipe. As the primary member of his household to promote DBC in america, Tam preserves the normal strategies and recipe handed down from his father and grandfather. However he isn’t afraid to experiment.

“I really use molasses in my recipe as a result of it simply permits me to work with the sweet simpler and produce extra items rapidly,” Tam explains. “Whereas the traditional model is a best-seller (particularly for main festivals and celebrations), I additionally promote DBC that’s flavored [with ingredients] resembling mango, matcha, and cotton sweet, which our clients love due to the style and creativity.”

The web has proven some curiosity within the conventional dragon’s beard recipe as nicely, as Cheung has witnessed. “I really wasn’t conscious it was trending, however I did put up a video of me making the [classic version of the] sweet that acquired over 25,000 views, which was enjoyable,” he says. “I’m positive the movies on the market are very entertaining, every little thing from first-time successes to capturing mega fails.”

Regardless of the latest on-line fascination, dragon’s beard sweet faces headwinds within the U.S. “To be sincere, I simply don’t suppose it’s extremely popular within the West,” Cheung says. “I bear in mind when the sweet first got here to New York’s Chinatown about 20 years in the past and it was type of a fad and everybody wished it on a regular basis, however then its reputation died out.”

However he stays hopeful. “Curiosity and consciousness spikes [around Chinese New Year] as a result of this sweet brings again nostalgic reminiscences of childhood to many people within the Chinese language group,” he explains. “I do really feel it nonetheless has a spot in society. Many come to my store wanting the sweet to attempt as a result of their mother and father and grandparents go loopy about how they beloved it as a toddler rising up. Isn’t that custom?”

Older candymakers might should let youthful followers select how they wish to interact with the deal with if there’s any probability of retaining dragon’s beard sweet accessible for one more technology. Many followers of the sweet are like Tam, who expresses a secret hope that his 4-year-old daughter will develop as much as take an curiosity within the household enterprise, although he will likely be content material no matter no matter path she chooses.

“Proper now, I’m simply joyful she likes to eat the sweet. And she or he all the time says that she tells her buddies she has a ‘sugar daddy!’” Tam exclaims and laughs.

Now as a mom who’s contemplating the way to share dragon’s beard sweet with my 2-year-old daughter, I’m thrilled {that a} handful of retailers and on-line creators have sparked a dialogue concerning the place of this historic deal with in a up to date context. Till there’s a resurgence of dragon’s beard sweet stalls throughout North America, you’ll discover me ordering categorical, same-day shipments to get my DBC at its finest.

Tiffany Leigh is a BIPOC freelance journalist with a culinary background and levels in communications and enterprise. She is the recipient of the Clay Triplette James Beard Basis scholarship and has reported on journey, food and drinks, magnificence, wellness, and trend for publications resembling VinePair, Wine Fanatic, Enterprise Insider, Dwell, Style Journal, Elle, Departures, Journey + Leisure, Vogue, Meals & Wine, Bon Appetit, Form Journal, USA TODAY, and lots of extra.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.