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Dragon beard candy is a traditional Chinese treat made from finely spun sugar. Many people believe that this candy was invented for the ancient emperors, and has been part of Chinese cuisine for thousands of years. It gets its name from its soft and wispy texture, which closely resembles the beard seen on the mythical Chinese dragon. This candy is similar to the cotton candy consumed in other parts of the world, but is spun by hand rather than in a machine. It also differs in that it may be filled, while cotton candy consists of pure spun sugar with no fillers.
To make dragon beard candy, cooks start by heating some type of sugar product. Traditional recipes call for cane sugar, though modern versions may include corn syrup or maltose. Once the heated sugar is allowed to cool, it forms a solid block.
Makers then pull and fold this block of sugar to form thousands of fine sugary strands. By continuously pulling and stretching the sugar, they can create a light, airy texture. The strands are then wrapped into a small rounded shape to form each piece of candy. As the strands are pulled and formed, they must be rolled or dipped in some form of powder to prevent them from sticking together. This powder may come in the form of rice flour, corn starch, or even powdered sugar depending on the desired flavor and texture of the candy.
While dragon beard candy can be eaten plain, it is often filled with other ingredients to create contrasting flavors and textures. Some makers use crushed or chopped peanuts, while others may add sesame seeds or other nuts. Roasted coconut is also a popular filler in this candy.
The process of making dragon beard candy is considered a lost art, even in China. Part of this is due to cultural and social changes, but it can also be attributed to the product's very short shelf life. Dragon beard candy must be eaten within a few minutes after it has been prepared. Otherwise, it will harden back into a sticky mass and lose its fine, airy texture.
The difficulty in preserving this candy has made it difficult to find. Some Chinese people continue to make it at home, and others set up small booths or carts in the Chinatown section of cities throughout the world. This attracts people who are drawn to the art of making this candy, as well as its sweet and delicate taste and texture. One company has found a way to preserve the candy and ship it by mail, but it is relatively expensive, and some people argue that it simply doesn't taste the same as freshly prepared candy.