Trying classic Chinese candies: a nostalgic sweet tooth
Memories often are their strongest when they are linked with sensory perceptions. A memory from our past that is tied to a particular song, aroma, or taste can heighten the sense of nostalgia we feel when reminiscing about a pleasant experience from our past.
This is particularly true when thinking back on our favorite childhood treats. The candies, snacks and sweets we enjoyed as kids often hold a special place in our hearts, even if they've long since ceased production and left the market. Even those sweet treats that are still around, for me, I likely wouldn't even enjoy if I were to indulge in them now. I don't really eat sweets anymore, and the junk I ate as a kid was so jam-packed with sugar that now, I'd probably wince the second it touched my tongue.
Even so, memories of the ice cream truck and snow cones and other treats of yore really bring me back right into a specific moment in time, evoking vivid memories of my life back then.
I've always found it intriguing to learn about what snacks my local friends and peers had during their youth that elicit similar feelings of nostalgia. Let's discuss some of the more widespread nostalgic candies in China. The first one that comes to the forefront is both well-known and fitting for the present time.
White Rabbit (dabaitu 大白兔)
These have been floating around a bit more than usual over the last few weeks, which makes sense given that we're still less than a month removed from welcoming in the Year of the Rabbit. This renowned chewy treat was born in Shanghai and first hit the market in 1959, and it has been a classic for generations since. It's even been featured in music and films in China as a staple, A-lister of a candy.
As for the product itself, it's a simple, milk/cream flavored candy that, while soft, does have a certain degree of toughness to it and needs to linger in the mouth and heat up a bit before it can be easily chewed. It's sweet but not overly so, which is a common feature of not only candies but also cakes, cookies, and other various dessert items in China.
This, in my view, is good for a number of reasons. The first is health-related ― as we know, consuming excess sugar can have a variety of deleterious health effects ranging from weight gain to diabetes to tooth decay and many others. The White Rabbit, though, is more modestly sweetened and thus only has 20 calories per piece.
Also, growing up in the United States, the concept of something being "too sweet" was an unfamiliar idea. Sweets, be they candies, cakes, pies, or anything else, were all ten out of ten on the sweetness scale. Either something was sweet, or it wasn't, with essentially no gray area in between. Now, I quite prefer the nuance of a sweetness gradient, and savoring a dabaitu, whether of the original cream flavor or one of the plethora of other flavors available these days, can hit that perfect spot.
Orange peel candy (chenpi tang 陈皮糖)
This small hard candy is made with powdered orange peel, which gives it an extra zesty kick when compared to regular fruit-flavored candies. It has less of an artificial imitation flavor profile and tastes more like it's seasoned with some sort of cinnamon or nutmeg, even though, according to the ingredient list, it's not.
The unusual flavor is enjoyable and a bit unexpected. You'll often find it in the little glass tray on a receptionist's desk in a random office building or waiting room. Worth a shot; it's interesting.
Salty dried Chinese plum (huamei 话梅)
This little snack sounds a bit strange, and, honestly, tastes strange as well. But don't necessarily take that to mean that it's bad. This treat, which originated in south China's Guangdong Province (where it's referred to as li hing mui in Cantonese) certainly isn't for everyone, but it packs a unique punch that, if you're a bit daring, you might find alluring.
Chinese plums are, as the name suggests, dried and salted, producing a small, pitted fruit that you can pop in your mouth and savor whilst slowly chomping away at the bits of dried fruit still clinging to the seed within. The flavor is strongly sour with a salty aftertaste, which is very distinctive and for many, polarizing.
Huamei are also often ground up to make powder, which can be used as a seasoning on fruits or other treats to add a twist of flavor, so eating a whole one certainly might pucker the lips, but I am a big fan of these. Give them a try.
Chewy corn candy (yumi ruantang 玉米软糖)
This is exactly what it sounds (and looks) like ― a chewy, soft candy colored and shaped like an ear of corn. For better or worse, it's flavored this way as well.
This exists in ice cream form as well; corn-shaped and flavored ice cream on a stick, and while this chilled version is fairly palatable (though I wouldn't enthusiastically recommend it), the chewy candy is ... not.
You might initially be puzzled by the idea of turning the flavor of a vegetable into a sweet candy, and I share in this perplexion. It's weird, and it doesn't work. Sorry for those who like this one, but, for me ... hard pass. Give this one a miss.
Dried hawthorn wafers (shanzha pian 山楂片)
These thin, reddish circular wafers usually come in small packs of five, and are dried and pressed versions of the hawthorn fruit. This fruit, scientifically referred to as cratageus, grows in many temperate regions throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The species most prevalent in China is a sweet-and-sour fruit that is often used to make jams, beverages, a classic treat called bingtang hulu, which are candied frozen hawthorn on a stick, and this packaged wafer candy here.
Not overly sweet (which is a bit of a theme here) and somewhat sour, this candy actually tastes like dried fruit and isn't overpowered by the taste of artificial sweeteners. Though perhaps best enjoyed just a few at a time, hawthorn wafers are a solid fruity snack.
This list is, of course, not a comprehensive one, and many people of different generations certainly had different experiences with sweets during their childhoods. Leave a comment and tell me which of these you love or hate, or if there are any I missed that I might try in the future.