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Sweet treats for every sweet tooth on Halloween
2012-10-26

WHEN trick-or-treaters make the Halloween rounds of expat communities, there are mountains of sweet possibilities. But many Chinese fondly recall old-time treats like little sugar pyramid, Inch of Gold and the still-popular White Rabbit. Xie Fangyuan takes a bite.

Halloween is all about candy, candy, candy for children who dress up and go from house to house, trick-or-treating and collecting bags of candies (tang guo).

There's no tradition to celebrate Halloween in China but the country seems like one big candy store, including old-time and modern treats, and many people associate certain sweets with their childhood and other periods in life.

Some people remember Chinese street vendors carrying buckets of unwrapped candy on shoulder poles. Many people recall famous, milky White Rabbit that's still popular today. Some still swear by li gao tang (梨膏糖) or pear syrup candies with herbs for sore throats and coughing.

Sweets containing processed sugars create a chemical high, as all concerned parents know after watching their children over-indulge in candy and sweets and then get very excited, only to come crashing down. It's a brief high. And dark chocolates too lift mood, but briefly.

Still, there's nothing like sugar.

The array of candies - hard candies, chocolates, nougat, malt, toffees, bars, fudge, peanut and sesame - satisfies every sweet tooth and craving.

Though sweet dishes and cakes have always been around, Chinese people's particular taste for candies is relatively recent and can be traced back to the 1900s. In the days when people didn't have much money and counted their pennies, candy was a luxury and a reward, a treat to be savored. Occasions for candy were special. Today colorfully packaged candy is cheap, widely available.

Over the years, tastes have changed as Western-type sweets, such as creamy sweets and chocolate, have been manufactured and imported.

"Today's young generation is more obsessed with chocolate than candies," says Feng Fusheng, deputy secretary-general of the Shanghai Confectionery & Food Association. "Actually most young people, especially the post-1990s generation, have no idea about old-time pear syrup candies (herbal pear syrup is a traditional cough medicine) and danzi tang (round marble candies 弹子糖)."

Candies are roughly divided into Chinese and Western styles.

Chinese domestic sweets were popular in Shanghai until the 1960s when Western-style sweets gained a dominant foothold in the market.

Some sweets are named after their shapes or looks such as zongzi tang (粽子糖) or little sugar pyramids shaped like rice dumplings, among the earliest homemade Chinese sweets.

The time-honored confectioner Cai Zhi Zhai, founded at the end of 19th century, is well-known for its zongzi tang. Legend has it that they helped cure an illness suffered by the Empress Dowagers Cixi (1868-1913). Medicinal herbs and nuts are added to the sweet and today there are more flavors, such as peanut and mint.

Another old-style sweet was xiangyan tang (香烟糖) or literally cigarette candies popular in the 1940s and still somewhat available today. They look just like cigarettes rolled in white paper and sold in packs, but taste purely sweet like sugar candies.

Simple candies used to be shaped like fruits, such as apple and banana, and taste like them as well.

A popular traditional confectionery product was called cun jin tang (寸金糖) or literally "an inch of gold," measuring 3.3cm, shaped like a gold bar, bright yellow in color and made of a paste of flour and sugar wrapped with sesame.

People born after 1970 remember maiya tang (麦芽糖) - the sweets that demonstrate the confectioner's skill in turning liquid maltose into different shapes or calligraphy characters, such as figures from literary works.

"I liked to appreciate the candy man's performance rather than eat the candy," says a blogger named Dandelion.

The earliest traditional Chinese-style candies were unwrapped. Paper-wrapped sweets were foreign products imported after the Opium War of 1840, says Feng from the confectionery association. People used to buy multiple candies packaged in coarse yellow paper, making a triangular bag given as gifts before 1949.

In the 1940s and 50s, sweets cost mere cents; one zongzi tang used to cost one cent or fen. The earliest candies were handmade in confectionery studios. Peddlers sold sweets in buckets attached to shoulder poles.

Sucrose and maltose were boiled into liquid, poured into tray molds and cut into cubes when the liquid hardened.

Candies were available around the country but Shanghai, as an international city, had the greatest variety. Most of them were hard; the softer ones were typically made of sorghum syrup.

Many old-style candies have disappeared, but pear syrup candies containing herbs are still popular. They are sold in the City God Temple in Shanghai.

After the Opium War, Western-style sweets were imported and large-scale manufacturing was introduced. Creamy candies, nougats, candies with whipped topping and chocolate fudges gained popularity. But before the 1980s domestic sweets were dominant.

"The biggest difference between the Chinese and imported candies is that consumers can tell whether it's a peanut or sesame bar simply by looking at it, but they have to taste to judge Western-style candies with peanut fillings since the appearances are very similar," Feng says.

One of the most famous candies is creamy, milky White Rabbit, a Shanghai brand that has been popular nationwide since the 1960s and still evokes nostalgia. It was based on the Mickey Mouse brand founded in 1943.

"In my memory, the most delicious sweet was the peddlers' malted bar and Shanghai White Rabbit that my dad brought back home from business trips," Yuan Yue, president of Zero Consulting Group and a former TV host, once said.

The White Rabbit is a classic logo and the candies were presented to former US President Richard Nixon when he visited China in 1972.

Candies conjure sweet memories

1950s generation: Zhang Jindi, 58, retired

"I remember sorghum molasses in my childhood, really tasty."

1960s generation: Zhu Lin, 43, accountant

"The sweetest memory of my childhood is having White Rabbit creamy candies, expensive compared with other candies."

1970s generation: Netizen Snow, 30-something

"In my time, one yuan could buy 100 fruit candies or 70 creamy candies, but only 40 nougats. My mom found that a mixture of fruit candy and peanut tastes like nougat so that it saved a lot."

1980s generation: Netizen Kitty Loves Chocolate, late 20s

"Our generation has limited choices comparing with the post-1990s. Fruit drops, White Rabbit candy, peanut candy and qintang (Shanghai dialect for malted sweets) were all I remember, though they were great at the time."

1990s generation: Hou Weifeng, 21, student

"I'm a fan of sweets, especially hard candies and lollipops."

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