Medicine doesn't have to taste bad to be good

Chen Huizhi
A venerated factory in Shanghai makes traditional herbal pear syrup candies popular for soothing coughs.
Chen Huizhi
Shot by Ma Xuefeng. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Subtitles by Yang Yang.

Shanghai has a sweet tooth, and it extends beyond a local cuisine where sugar often features.

In Chinese traditional medicine, a pear syrup candy made with a dozen herbs is popular as a remedy to soothe coughs, debunking the notion that medicine has to taste bad to be effective.

The medicinal candy must work for many people because it’s been around 160 years.

Wu Shengzhong, 57, a vice director at the factory where the herbal candy is made, ensures that the concoction doesn’t cut corners from the original recipe.

Hardly any Shanghai local would not be aware of pear syrup candy. It’s a popular seller at one of the city’s largest shopping hubs, the City God Temple mall. In the temple area, which was the heart of the city’s commercial activities in the late 19th century, the first shop making the medicinal product opened.

The shop was operated by a married couple and was called Zhupinzhai after the husband, who was surnamed Zhu. The name literally means "Shop of Family Zhu's Treats."

Soon after, two other shops making the candy opened, and the three were merged into the Shanghai Pear Syrup Candy Factory in the 1950s. To this day, it is the only producer of pear syrup candy in the city.

Pears have traditionally been considered a remedy for coughs in China. Legend has it that the fruit was first made into medicinal syrup in the early Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). The story goes that then prime minister Wei Zheng tried treating his mother’s cough with herbal pear syrup after she refused to drink the traditional bitter herbal soup prescribed by the doctors. The syrup cleared up the cough.

In more recent times, pear syrup was made into rock candies, which may be less medicinal in effect but contain the same herbs.

When Wu started to work at the pear syrup candy factory in 1982 as an apprentice, he figured he had landed the best job in the world.

“When I was a kid, I could have sweets only during the Spring Festival, but working at this factory, I figured I could taste something sweet every day,” he said. “It was such a dream job for people of my generation.”

However, Wu was soon disabused of that notion. Not only were the workers strictly prohibited from sneaking bites of the candies, but the job itself proved much harder than he had expected.

“At that time, we used coal to cook the syrup, and after a day’s work, my face would be covered with coal dust,” he recalled. “In the hot summer, we had to work in stifling rooms with no air-conditioning, and, in fact, we still do today.”

But Wu took the job seriously and learned the secrets of making pear syrup candy from a master.

“He reminded me that the candy we make is more than just a candy because it contains medicinal herbs,” he said. “At that time, many people couldn’t afford to see a doctor when they fell ill, and those with coughs bought our pear syrup candies.”

Over the years, modern machinery, including some invented by factory workers, has made the work easier and more efficient, but the candies are still essentially handmade and quality has never been compromised.

It takes eight hours to simmer the herbs. After that, herb broth is filtered and cooled. Honey is added and the mixture is cooked for another three hours before being turned into candies or bottles of syrup.

“The way the sweetener is cooked and whipped into ‘sand’ to be pressed into candy nuggets is the secret to a successful batch of pear syrup candy,” Wu said.

In earlier times, the candies were sold at the factory site. They were so warm and soft from the kitchen that they melted on the tongue. Today, the candies are sold at retail outlets and are harder but perhaps sweeter because they are cooler and have lost some of their moisture.

Wu and his colleagues were challenged by the relatively short shelf life of packaged pear syrup candies.

“Because we don’t add any preservatives, the herbs they contain make them go moldy in damp weather, especially during the plum rain season in Shanghai,” he said.

Now, by drying the candies before packaging and using cellophane in the wrappers, Wu’s team has extended the shelf life of the candies from 90 to 180 days. The pear syrup has a use-by date of up to two years.

Compared with the pear syrup candy, which is predominantly sweet, bottled pear syrup has a richer, almost bittersweet taste.

In 2009, pear syrup candy was listed as an “intangible cultural heritage” of Shanghai. That same year, the product faced the biggest crisis of its existence. A new national food safety law came into effect, banning all medicinal additives in food, including traditional Chinese medicinal herbs.

“We were really concerned because pear syrup candies without herbs would simply turn the product into something else,” Wu said.

Fortunately, laboratory results proved the candies harmless, and Wu’s factory got a license from the authorities in 2011 to resume production. To this day, pear syrup candies are the only food product in China that can be legally sold with medicinal additives.

The factory has expanded its range somewhat. It now also produces pear syrup candies with floral tastes that can be used to make flower tea. It has also introduced a variety of pear syrup drinks.

“Young people on our team have come up with many interesting ideas, such as the floral-flavored candies,” Wu said. “I would have never thought of that. It’s important to update traditions while preserving their essence.”

To better tailor the candies to a new generation of customers, Wu plans to make the candies smaller than the traditional 25 grams and use less sweetener. Under no circumstances, he said, will any chemical sweeteners be used.

“Xylitol? Never when making of pear syrup candies,” he said. “The candies just wouldn’t be the same.”

Just like many others who work to preserve old traditions, Wu said he worries about passing down inherited skills.

Low salaries and hardworking conditions tend to turn the younger generation off and make it hard to retain workers, even those from out of town, said Wu, who currently has two apprentices.

“Times are changing,” he said. “Old colleagues who worked in the factory all their lives retired in tears because they had so much affection for their workplace.”

Wu said he hopes the government will provide more support for traditional trades.

Apart from Shanghai, pear syrup candies are made in some other cities in China, using varied recipes, but they’re mostly handmade, Wu said.

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