RE-ENVISION: Dragon’s Beard Candy
RE-ENVISION is an ongoing series of research memos produced by our associates at Appetite. We trace the cultural genealogies of food from around the world to challenge commonly held beliefs about origin and authenticity.
Dragon’s beard candy (龍鬚糖) was developed in China, and from there spread to other parts of East Asia. More recently, it has found popularity in Canada, Singapore, the United States, Taiwan, Macau, and Japan.1 Dragon’s beard is made up of thousands of thin strands of pulled sugar, which are either served loose or wrapped around a nutty filling. To make dragon’s beard, a rope of semi-hardened, boiled sugar is formed into a circle, stretched, and looped into figure eights until the one rope turns to thousands.
Dragon’s beard is said to have originated during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) in China. Stories say that an imperial court chef entertained the Emperor by making the confection. The thin strands of stretched candy clung to the chin when eaten, supposedly reminding the Emperor of a dragon’s beard. The name may also be due to the dragon’s status as a symbol of the Chinese Emperor.2
Dragon’s beard was a food of the elite class after its introduction during the Han Dynasty because of how difficult it was to make. However, it slowly gained popularity with other classes as an artisan treat, and eventually became a food of special occasions.3 Because the tradition and knowledge is passed from father to son, it was somewhat sparsely practiced.4
Compounding its limited production, the sweet nearly ceased to exist during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) due to strict new policies. The Communist Party of China called for the destruction of the “Four Olds,” old customs, culture, habits, and ideas, in order to undermine the ideology of the bourgeoisie and reinforce the role of the proletariat in the revolutionary state.5 As dragon’s beard was connected with the “old” Han Dynasty, it was forbidden, and almost disappeared. Luckily, the art has regained popularity in street festivals, tourist locations, and diasporic communities in recent years, ensuring that it will not be lost forever.6
Today, dragon’s beard is found either in loose floss or stuffed with nutty fillings. The filling depends on the region, the chef, and the purpose of the candy, but crushed peanuts, coconut, or sesame seeds are common.7 Although peanuts and sesame are not native to China — originating in South America and Africa, respectively — they both likely came through the Silk Road or Indian Ocean trade routes. Sesame arrived as early as 50 BC, and peanuts came much later, finally arriving during the 17th century.8 The delay of the peanut to East Asia is a result of its long journey, initiated from South America to Europe by the Spanish, then taken to the East by the Portuguese on the Indian Ocean trade route.9 10
While it is served in its original form throughout most of East and Southeast Asia, dragon’s beard takes on a new name and form in Korea. Kkultarae, the Korean version of candy floss, literally translates to “honey skein.”11 It is mainly sold in Insadong and Myeongdong. The candy was advertised as a dessert that Korean kings historically ate, although this story actually stems from a misleading assumption brought up on a popular TV show. In reality, kkultarae is only around thirty years old. It emerged in Insadong in the nineties as an attempt to draw on dragon’s beard’s surge in popularity, as evident by the similar origin story of a king and his court crafted by kkultarae’s creators.12
As far as substance, dragon’s beard candy is made out of sugar and maltose, while kkultarae uses honey and maltose powder. Corn flour is often used to coat the individual strands rather than dragon’s beard’s rice flour.13 It is folded until it has reached 16,000 individual strands, which supposedly represent “[a] prayer for longevity, health, good fortune, and wish-fulfillment,” although it is unclear where this meaning comes from. Kkultarae has a slightly different nutty filling, typically using almonds, peanuts, or walnuts.14 Almonds likely originated in China, and spread as travelers took them for sustenance along the Silk Road.15 Walnuts originated in ancient Persia, and were also initially spread by the Silk Road trade route.16
Candy floss is also found across Central Asia and the Middle East, originally making its mark on the region in Iran. Pashmak (Persian: پشمک) is a form of Iranian candy floss, meaning “like wool” in Persian. Pashmak is served on its own as floss or used to top fruits, cakes, ice cream, pudding or other desserts. Rather than being stuffed with nuts, pashmak is sometimes topped with crushed pistachios.17
Pashmak was introduced to Turkey by Persia [Iran] in the Anatolian Seljuk era (11th-13th century). During this time, the Seljuk Turks sought to expand their empire, and did so by conquering parts of Northern and Western Iran as well as Syria. The Islamic world saw the largest inmigration of any pre modern society. During their conquests, the Turks adopted Sunni Muslim religion and culture, and, consequently, food traditions.18 Once in Turkey, pashmak became known as pişmaniye or keten helva, which roughly translates to “linen sweet.”19
The earliest mention of pişmaniye in Turkish written records is in a recipe by Şirvani, a physician writing during the 1430s, but the first recipe for keten helva itself came from the early fifteenth century. The recipe uses clarified tail fat from a fat-tailed sheep and honey in the place of modern ingredients butter and sugar, although it does use wheat flour.20
The commercially sold keten helva is reminiscent of soan papdi, an Indian form of candy floss often sold in packed cubes. The similarity may be due to the close ties between the Mughal empire and the Turkic regions, as “the ruling Mongol elites… eventually assimilated into the Turkic populations that they conquered and ruled over,” taking on a variety of Turkic cultural traits and making for a cosmopolitan empire.21
Floss candies have made their way around the world, and there are even more than those covered in depth here. In Egypt, candy floss is referred to as halawa shaar, bearing similarities to the name keten helva (halawa and helva being alike).22 In Bosnian, floss candy is called Ćetenija.23 Soan papdi and sutarfeni are Indian varieties. The author of Sherbert and Spice, a book on Turkish sweets, points to a variety of Central Asian and Eastern European regional names, such as: “pişmâniye, peşmek, peşmânî, tel helvasi, telteli, çekme helvasi, depme helvası, saray helvasi, külük helvasi, and met helvasi.”24
Despite the variety of sweetmeats in the world, many bear direct similarities to one another. For instance, the custom of serving sweetmeats between the courses to clear the palate was in common use in the court of Imperial China, and is practiced today in Iran and Turkey.25 Like dragon’s beard in China, pashmak (Iran) and keten helva (Turkey) have mostly stopped being made in homes, save for a few special artisans or villages where it remains a practiced tradition. Many of these flosses have metaphors to cloth or string in their name (keten helva’s reference to linen, kkultarae’s skein, pashmak’s wool), and many more refer to hair (dragon’s beard, “grandma’s hair” in Greece, “Dad’s beard” in Quebec).26
While dragon’s beard is traditionally coated in rice flour, pashmak uses corn flour. In pashmak and Turkish regional varieties like keten helva, the preferred coating flour is first roasted in butter to add a nutty flavor. Some of the Central Asian varieties use honey instead of sugar, as does kkultarae, which breaks from the other East Asian varieties and demonstrates its recent fabrication.27 The Central Asian varieties are often topped with nuts, or occasionally have fillings sandwiched between layers for commercial sale, but East Asian flosses are formed into cocoons that surround fillings. Like the Central Asian varieties, kkultarae traditionally uses honey instead of sugar.
Candy floss has multiplied and diversified since it expanded past Han China. The plethora of varieties listed here is evidence that it is cherished wherever it lands, as cultures around the world have found unique ways to produce and enjoy the delicate sweet, even despite its complicated recipe. Loose or stuffed, nutty or floral, candy floss remains a novel sweet with a global presence.
Candy Atlas. “Dragon Beard Candy Master Johnny Chin.” Candy Atlas, April 14, 2016. http://www.candyatlas.com/dragon-beard-candy-master-johnny-chin/.
Candy Atlas is a traveling blog that shows candy’s role in various global cuisines by highlighting the people who make it. Their interview with a dragon’s beard candy maker helps characterize the social context of the candy, and highlights what the tradition means to those who keep it alive.
Chunming Wu, in Van Tilburg, H., Tripati, S., Walker Vadillo, V., Fahy, B., and Kimura, J. (eds.), “An Ethno-archaeological perspective of Maritime Cultural interaction between Southeast China and the West world during the 16th and 17th centuries ,” The MUA Collection, May 15, 2015, http://www.themua.org/collections/items/show/1610.
Anthropologist Chumning Wu examines what he calls, “one of the most important periods of cultural interaction in human history” with his piece on early trade and conflict between the European and Asian worlds. Wu’s analysis is helpful in examining changes to material and nonmaterial culture during the time of Indian Ocean trade, as well as tracking specific elements like the peanut throughout space and time.
Goldstein, Darra. The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
“The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets” is a dictionary for candy. The volume lays out sweets alphabetically by place of origin (i.e. Persia) and type (i.e. Ice Cream). The “Companion” is not shy in making connections between different confections, which helps the reader understand how they came to be in addition to just what they are.
Işın, Priscilla Mary. Sherbet & Spice: the Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013.
Işın’s work is purposefully written like an adventure story. As she details how the vast array of Turkish sweets came to be, she provides the reader with detailed historical recipes, folktales, songs, and other cultural artifacts. Işın’s writing imbues a sense of joy into the sweets she describes, providing accurate and thorough information while maintaining the sense of wonder that comes along with confectionery.
Weiss, E. A. Spice Crops. New York: CAB International, 2002.
From turmeric and saffron to laurel and pimento, “Spice Crops” describes a variety of spices, how they should be grown, and where they came from. This book is as much about providing timelines of crops throughout history as it is with helping the reader understand cultivation techniques and the best ways to achieve profitability.
Written by Clara Zervignon
1“Dragon’s Beard Candy.” Wikipedia, last modified February 7, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon%27s_beard_candy.
2Mariam Mahejabeen. “Dragon’s Beard Candy: A Wispy Delight.” Medium, 18 Jan. 2018. medium.com/@mahejabeen395/dragons-beard-candy-a-wispy-delight-3bdb9ed5a797.
3Leanne Kitchen. “Discover the Delicious Sugary Joy of Dragon Beard Candy.” SBS TV, 28 Apr. 2019. www.sbs.com.au/food/article/2019/04/29/discover-delicious-sugary-joy-dragon-beard-candy.
4Candy Atlas. “Dragon Beard Candy Master Johnny Chin.” Candy Atlas, April 14, 2016. http://www.candyatlas.com/dragon-beard-candy-master-johnny-chin/.
5“Cultural Revolution.” Wikipedia, last modified February 17, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_Revolution#Red_Guards_and_the_destruction_of_the_%22Four_Olds%22.
6“Dragon’s Beard Candy.” Wikipedia, 2020.
7Sam O’Brien. “Dragon’s Beard Candy.” Atlas Obscura, December 26, 2017. https://www.atlasobscura.com/foods/dragons-beard-candy-china.
8“Internet Sesame Oil Dictionary.” Kadoya Sesame Mills Incorporated, https://www.kadoya.com/english/.
9Chunming Wu, in Van Tilburg, H., Tripati, S., Walker Vadillo, V., Fahy, B., and Kimura, J. (eds.), “An Ethno-archaeological perspective of Maritime Cultural interaction between Southeast China and the West world during the 16th and 17th centuries ,” The MUA Collection, May 15, 2015. http://www.themua.org/collections/items/show/1610.
10“Peanut Production in China.” Wikipedia, last modified September 30, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peanut_production_in_China.
11“Kkul-tarae.” Wikipedia, last modified March 28, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kkul-tarae.
12Tran Trieu. “For All Your Cravings: Popular Desserts from the Streets of Korea.” SnackFever, April 22, 2019. https://snackfever.com/blogs/magazine/for-all-your-cravings-popular-desserts-from-the-streets-of-korea.
13“A Bite of Seoul Street Food: Kkultarae.” Baking Bites, October 14, 2010. https://bakingbites.com/2009/10/a-bite-of-seoul-street-food-kkultarae/.
14Trieu. “For All Your Cravings,” 2019.
15“The History of Almonds.” Waterford Nut Company, https://www.waterfordnut.com/history.html.
16“History.” California Walnuts, https://walnuts.org/about-walnuts/history/.
17“Pashmak.” Wikipedia, last modified April 18, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pashmak.
18Marilyn R. Waldman and Malika Zeghal. “Encyclopædia Britannica.” In Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., August 21, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Islamic-world.
19Rohini Chaki. “Pashmak.” Gastro Obscura, January 28, 2019. https://www.atlasobscura.com/foods/pashmak-persian-fairy-floss.
20Priscilla Mary Işın. Sherbet & Spice: the Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts, (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013), 139.
21“Turco-Mongol tradition.” Wikipedia, last modified February 15, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turco-Mongol_tradition.
22“Pişmaniye.” Wikipedia, last modified February 6, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pi%C5%9Fmaniye.
23“Pişmaniye.” Wikipedia, 2020.
24Işın, Sherbet & Spice, 137.
25R. Gordon Booth. Snack Food, (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990), 88.
26peacelovehap. “This translates to ‘grandma’s hair.’ In Greece they call cotton candy, grandma’s hair lol.” Reddit, July 7, 2019. https://www.reddit.com/r/pics/comments/cadeh0/this_translates_to_grandmas_hair_in_greece_they/.
27Darra Goldstein. The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 746.