They look like an oversized cocoon... but no. These fine, white, fluffy, lozenge-shaped bundles are hard to make but easy to eat traditional Chinese sweets. The pure, crisp, sugary joy that is the sweet exterior hides a delicious powdery mess of toasted coconut, sesame and peanut inside. Meet Dragon Beard Candy.
Once a treat reserved only for the inhabitants of the Chinese Imperial palace, Dragon Beard candy is still fairly rare, thanks to the extreme difficulty of making it. Australia is home to one of a handful of people worldwide who have mastered the art - Gary Au. A trained chef, Au was taught to make the candy as a youngster in his native Hong Kong. The ingredients are few and simple - corn syrup, cornflour and those three, nutty filling components. Au explains that the corn syrup is simmered until it’s fairly firm, cooled a bit then broken off into smallish lumps. Using his hands, he pokes a hole in the middle of each lump then forms it into a ring like a doughnut. He stretches the ring and, when he judges it’s big enough, he doubles it over, twisting it back on itself, miraculously forming strands as he does so. As he works, he regularly dips the mass into a big bath of cornflour, which prevents the strands from sticking.
This stretching and twisting is repeated, every time doubling the number of individual strands created until there are over 4000 of them, all perfectly even and as fine as hair. Watching him is mesmerising.
“The hardest part is getting the strands even,” he explains, making it look ridiculously easy. Once the mass of fine “hair” is made, he breaks it into even-sized lengths, using these lengths to wrap tightly around the filling, forming perfectly neat parcels that look way too dainty to eat.
“It’s becoming hard to find these on mainland China now,” Au says. “Even in Hong Kong, where they were once a popular street food, they’re difficult to find. Making the candies is hard, skilled work and not many people have the patience to master it,” he reckons. His daughter Cindy agrees. Her dad taught her how to make them but she estimates it took about “10 years before I could complete them from beginning to end. It took me years to perfect the wrapping process and make my finished ones look like Dad’s. In the beginning, and for a long time, I just made the holes!”
Au, who can make 40-50 of the candies in an hour, says he never gets tired of “watching people's fascination and amazement” as he works. Indeed, it’s like watching pure magic. He’s at the Chinatown Night Markets in Sydney, every Friday night, where throngs gather to see him in action and to buy his sweets. When he started making Dragon’s Beards 22 years ago, he says it was only Chinese old-timers who knew what they were. Now, the word has been well and truly spread and he is regularly asked to cater to special functions, such as Chinese New Year parties and community Moon Festival events.
As for eating Dragon’s Beards, which incidentally get their name from the courage and power of the dragon and the obviously hair-like appearance of the sugar strands, Au recommends people attempt to eat a whole candy in a single go. This is so “the taste of the sugar and filling is balanced, and the soft and crunchy texture can be enjoyed together.” If your mouth isn't big enough (and he concedes most people's aren't), then biting one in half is an acceptable way to go. What you shouldn't do, he cautions, is pull apart the strands, or leave eating the candies, as they’re best, and crunchiest, when freshly made.
Normally, I’m all about the Super Bowl finger foods: carbs wrapped in cheese wrapped in carbs; usually mini; and often involving some combination of “panko-crusted”, “stuffed” and “pizza”. It is my thing (football, not so much). However, as my boyfriend and I both had somewhat hectic weeks, I felt like a gentler, quieter dessert was in order. One that you can stuff yourself full of and just feel comforted – instead of immobilised. So I made these red bean mochi balls.
My recipe is for half green tea mochi and half plain. Combine the two sets of ingredients if you just want to make one batch, and double the matcha powder if you want all green tea.