Even as a kid with severely limited patience, I knew the dragon’s beard candy from Jimmy Pan’s cart was worth the wait. Every weekend for nearly three decades, Pan judiciously filled orders of the white, fluffy candy from his stall in Toronto’s chaotic, cacophonous Pacific Mall. The candy’s stretched sugar strands, wrapped around a crunchy core of peanuts, coconut, and sesame seeds, create a series of textural sensations on the tongue: Some strands dissolve into a soft mass while others shatter into feuilletine flakes, before the whole thing morphs into a chewy, crunchy, jumble of nougat. Pan’s shop filled PacMall’s grid-like corridors with long lines of locals and out-of-towners, who made the pilgrimage from New York, Milwaukee, Detroit, and as far as Los Angeles. Somewhere in there, I was holding hands with my mom, inching closer to my prize.
As the most popular legend goes, dragon’s beard candy (sometimes shortened to DBC) was served to imperial families as far back as the Han Dynasty, getting its name from an emperor’s observation that the sticky, hair-like strands of sugar mimic the mythical creature’s bearded whiskers (messy eaters tend to sport similar threads clinging to their chins after eating the candy too). The candy is a nostalgic hallmark of many celebrations around Chinese New Year (also known as Lunar New Year, which takes place this year on February 10), in China, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and immigrant communities elsewhere. A handful of scattered outposts produce the candy in New York, San Francisco, Buena Park, California (not far from Anaheim), Montreal, and Richmond, British Columbia (outside Vancouver).
Growing up with immigrant parents from Hong Kong who tended toward “not too sweet” desserts, dragon’s beard candy was an exception to the rule, an insulin-spiking treat I devoured with reckless abandon. But the show at Pan’s stall was as much of a draw as the sweet itself. As my mom would rifle through her wallet, I stood mesmerized by the master candymaker at work. Pan stretched ropes of sugar like he was playing the accordion, periodically slapping them onto a bed of rice flour to separate the strands, sending residual flour dust ricocheting into the air like confetti.
“Many enjoy the ‘theater’ component and watching me pull and stretch the candy,” Pan says. “Every piece is made by hand and people know that waiting is all a part of the experience. I can only go as fast as my hands let me.” Though he never kept track of how many customers he served, Pan estimates he made up to 500 pieces on an average weekend at PacMall, where he no longer operates his stall regularly. Even during the holiday rush, though, he never succumbed to the pressure to hurry because it would compromise the candy’s quality.
Though Pan exudes a seasoned confidence, the holiday rush puts all DBC vendors under a lot of pressure. Fifth-generation DBC maker Derek Tam of Dragon Papa Dessert in San Francisco has been crafting dragon’s beard candy since he was 10 years old, but even he approaches Chinese New Year — and the Mid-Autumn Festival, another popular time for DBC — with some trepidation; the holidays comprise 80 percent of his revenue.
“I estimate I sell 5,000 pieces combined from those two major Chinese holidays, but the rest of the year is very quiet,” Tam says. Even during the hectic seasons, though, he remains a one man-show. “While I’ve tried to hire more people to help out, finding skilled labor is very difficult.”
DBC is notoriously labor intensive to make and the techniques are grueling to learn. Tam says it takes nearly two years of mentorship with any newbie before he can determine whether they’re competent enough to hire on a regular basis. “Unfortunately, I’ve cycled through many people. I keep one out of every 10 people I hire, not because I want to, but because it’s a very tricky skill to master. If you don’t do it well, you can immediately see and taste the difference in quality.”
Classic recipes require chefs to heat granulated sugar and maltose together with exacting precision, shape them into a molten puck, and expand that puck into a lasso. Then, with deft fingers (and the aid of rice flour), they stretch, pull, and fold the sugar onto itself in a figure eight until silky, vermicelli-like strands appear, before wrapping the threads around the filling.
“The perfect technique comes from a lot of practice,” says Chris Cheung, owner of East Wind Snack Shop in New York, who has developed his own methods — after much trial and error. “There were times I cooked the sugar on higher heat, and it yielded pucks that were too tough. I feel that pulling the candy rope 1 1/2 feet is better than 2 feet, and pulling chest high [rather] than at waist level results in a better final product. You take note of all these things.” Cheung also gleaned some transferable skills from his training hand-pulling noodles. “The techniques are similar, but it takes time to figure out the nature of the sugar. Now I can transform one [candy] rope into about 12,000 strands in about 10 to 12 pulls,” he boasts.
Pan also points out external factors that might throw off the temperamental process. “It’s all about mastering the technique and knowing the climate of any place you’re in before you even begin making it,” he explains. “For example, if it’s a rainy day, it can be virtually impossible to make the candy to the level I want because the excess humidity in the air affects the sugar crystals setting up properly. On a daily basis, factors like whether it’s dry, damp, warm, windy, and/or humid are so important to be aware of.”
Plus, once the whisper-thin threads are wrapped around the filling, the fresh candies must be eaten immediately. The delicate strands harden into rocks if they’re left to sit for even a day. (Though stubborn fans will still happily gnaw through solidified DBC. In my house growing up, even candy that was a few days old — if it ever made it that long — never went to waste.)
The challenges of making DBC, combined with the boom-and-bust cycle of the holidays, has weighed heavily on some vendors. Tam closed Dragon Papa during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, transitioning to selling candy online and at food festivals and other events. Pan is doing the same, preparing DBC at a handful of private events around the new year.
Without the DBC master at the helm, Pan’s shop doesn’t have a clear future. “I think I’ll retire within the next five years, and when I’m done, the business will be done,” he says. In order to control his workload, Pan has never franchised, expanded, or hired more workers. Though his preference is admirable, it has also left him without an heir apparent.
“I tried to teach my nephew how to make DBC, but after nine months, he gave up and returned to Hong Kong to find another job entirely,” he says. Pan’s son Brian helps run day-to-day operations, but has expressed no desire to take over once his dad stops completely. “There’s no one in the family who wants to take over the job because it’s hard, demanding, and not easy to control,” Pan says. “I think young people don’t prefer to make it their work because they don’t have the patience for it.”
That’s not entirely true of all younger people. With sources of dragon’s beard candy dwindling in the U.S., some inventive home chefs on TikTok and Instagram have taken matters into their own hands — and put their own twists on the classic candy. A few influencers and social media savvy chefs have modified the recipe by nixing the filling, calling for hacks like melting down Starburst candy, using corn syrup and vinegar, and adding dyes to their concoctions to make DBC more accessible and appealing to followers.
Some social media creators threaten to reduce DBC to a trend, and purists like Jimmy and Brian Pan bristle at taglines that refer to DBC as “Chinese cotton candy.” Yet others see real value in the spread of dragon’s beard candy online. Patrick Li, whose family is from Hong Kong and who goes by Feed My Phone on Instagram, has shared his love for classic DBC, but he also supports home chefs who get creative.
“Social media helps people discover food and unique dishes that they weren’t aware of before. TikTok and Instagram, in my opinion, help broaden everyone’s knowledge of global cuisine,” Li says. “Having seen some of the videos that circulate online that play with different colors/ingredients/flavors, it adds a certain novelty to it, which results in it going viral, as those unfamiliar see it as something ‘new.’” He adds that those home chefs who go the extra mile to recreate the original recipe will gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the candy.
It’s not just neophytes who mess with the candy’s recipe. As the first member of his family to sell DBC in the United States, Tam preserves the traditional techniques and recipe passed down from his father and grandfather. But he isn’t afraid to experiment.
“I actually use molasses in my recipe because it just allows me to work with the candy easier and produce more pieces quickly,” Tam explains. “While the classic version is a best-seller (especially for major festivals and celebrations), I also sell DBC that is flavored [with ingredients] such as mango, matcha, and cotton candy, which our customers love because of the taste and creativity.”
The internet has shown some interest in the traditional dragon’s beard recipe as well, as Cheung has witnessed. “I actually wasn’t aware it was trending, but I did post a video of me making the [classic version of the] candy that got over 25,000 views, which was fun,” he says. “I’m sure the videos out there are very entertaining, everything from first-time successes to capturing mega fails.”
Despite the recent online fascination, dragon’s beard candy faces headwinds in the U.S. “To be honest, I just don’t think it’s very popular in the West,” Cheung says. “I remember when the candy first came to New York’s Chinatown about 20 years ago and it was kind of a fad and everyone wanted it all the time, but then its popularity died out.”
But he remains hopeful. “Interest and awareness spikes [around Chinese New Year] because this candy brings back nostalgic memories of childhood to many of us in the Chinese community,” he explains. “I do feel it still has a place in society. Many come to my shop wanting the candy to try because their parents and grandparents go crazy about how they loved it as a child growing up. Isn’t that tradition?”
Older candymakers may have to let younger fans choose how they want to engage with the treat if there’s any chance of keeping dragon’s beard candy available for another generation. Many fans of the candy are like Tam, who expresses a secret hope that his 4-year-old daughter will grow up to take an interest in the family business, though he will be content regardless of whatever path she chooses.
“Right now, I’m just happy she loves to eat the candy. And she always says that she tells her friends she has a ‘sugar daddy!’” Tam exclaims and laughs.
Now as a mother who is considering how to share dragon’s beard candy with my 2-year-old daughter, I’m thrilled that a handful of shops and online creators have sparked a dialogue about the place of this ancient treat in a contemporary context. Until there’s a resurgence of dragon’s beard candy stalls across North America, you’ll find me ordering express, same-day shipments to get my DBC at its best.
Tiffany Leigh is a BIPOC freelance journalist with a culinary background and degrees in communications and business. She is the recipient of the Clay Triplette James Beard Foundation scholarship and has reported on travel, food and drink, beauty, wellness, and fashion for publications such as VinePair, Wine Enthusiast, Business Insider, Dwell, Fashion Magazine, Elle, Departures, Travel + Leisure, Vogue, Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Shape Magazine, USA TODAY, and many more.