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Suzhou Sweetmeats

by Yang Yang Weng

Fruits, Desserts, and Other Sweet Foods

Fall Volume: 1997 Issue: 4(3) page(s): 15


The Chinese candy of Suzhou is well known all over the world and as such has been popular for hundreds of years. It has its own specfic stule and there are Chinese herbs in it. People are accustomed to this food item and use it to entertain their guests and to give it as gifts.

Suzhou candy or sweetmeats are characterized as medicine and food. The Chinese believe that there are few, if any, differences between herbal medicine and food. Perhaps this is because they are mixed with each other and recognized as such in Chinese traditional medicine. Thus, the Suzhou candies are known and important because they contain nutritionally healthy and medicinal effects that coincide with guidelines of Chinese dietetics. As such, they are nourishing. Many people believe that they have curative effects because of their ingredients including that they can help hypertensive patients reduce their blood pressure.

The physical design of the candy is often in the form of an ellipse, or they can be square, rectangle, rhombus, or even bar-shaped. Varieties of flower patterns such as plum blossoms, bamboo, even chrysanthemum are printed on them as are words of tribute, good fortune, long life, etc. The sweetmeats are made by hand and use natural colors and fragrances. These aromatic fragrances are extracted from flowers such as rose, jasmine, and osmanthus. Beyond the aroma, the candy includes but is not limited to red dates, plums, black sesame seeds, and sugar.

Recorded in On Life by a Minister in the Shang Dynasty, it says that “if you want to prepare delicious food you have to put some salt and plum into the food.” Even in the Wu Ting Period of this dynasty (about 200 BCE), people learned how to enhance the delicacy and nutrition of food by adding salt and plum as seasonings.

The Chinese believe that there are few, if any, differences between herbal medicine and food. Perhaps this is because they are mixed with each other and recognized as such in Chinese traditional medicine. Thus, the Suzhou candies are known and important because they contain nutritionally healthy and medicinally effects that coincide with guidelines of Chinese dietetics. As such, they are nourishing and many people believe that they have curative effects because of their ingredients including that they can help hypertensive patients reduce their blood pressure.

The physical design of the candy is often in the form of an ellipse, or they can be square, rectangle, rhombus, or even bar-shaped. Varieties of flower patterns such as plum blossoms, bamboo, even chrysanthemum are printed on them as are words of tribute, good fortune, long life, etc. The sweetmeats are made by hand and use natural colors and fragrances. These aromatic fragrances are extracted from flowers such as rose, jasmine, and osmanthus. Beyond the aroma, the cand includes but is not limited to red dates, plums, black sesame seeds, and sugar.

Recorded in On Life by a Minister in the Shang Dynasty, it says that “if you want to prepare delicious food you have to put some salt and plum into the food.” Even in the Wu Ting Period of this dynasty (about 200 BCE), people learned how to enhance the delicacy and nutrition of food by adding salt and plum as seasonings.

In the Western Shou Dynasty, in the Customs of Zhou Dynasty, a high official named Tain Guan Zhong Zhai, said that the art of cooking delicious foods must include five seasonings: Vinegar, wine, manly sugar, ginger, and salt, while On Health stated that the five fruits supplement foods that combine medicine and food.

With this knowledge in mind, Suzhou sweetmeats were created in the Qing Dynasty. Later, when the Empress Dowager Ci Xi fell ill, a well-known medical practitioner named Cao Changchou was called to Beijing to cure her. He brought silks as tributes from his city and some pine nut candy manufactured in the Cai Zhi Zhai confectionery shop in Suzhou.

She ate the candy, found it tasty and refreshing; it stimulated her spirits so she deemed it a healthy tribute. After the doctor returned to Suzhou, he suggested that the Cai Zhi Zhai confectionery shop add a bit of licorice root and other herbs and to make their candy with between six and ten ingredients, many to camouflage the bitter medicinal taste. One candy was equivalent to a dose of herbal medicine, only it tasted better.

When people learned that the sweets manufactured in this Cai Zhi Zhai factory and sold in their shop were not only sweet and tasty but also could cure diseases, they reported the shop a semi-medical shop and patronized it frequently.

By the end of the Qing Dynasty, economics were booming due to a developed textile industry. Merchants and other wealthy people gathered in Suzhou and constructed buildings, purchased land, and set up many kinds of businesses. So as time went on, the varieties of Suzhou sweetmeats that were made increased and the new and old ones became very popular. They were no longer only for curing illness.

To meet with the standards outlined in the Customs of Zhen Dynasty, Cai Zhi Zhai improved both quality and varieties. The plum that they used in their candy was widespread in China and very popular. This plum, in Cantonese is called mei, and though known as a plum, it is a distinct species closer to apricot than plum and more correctly translated as oriental flowering apricot.

The Cai Zhi Zhai candy factory expanded to include sweetmeats beyond the plum and the herbs that they had been using. They manufactured items with new supplemental materials and medicines both as a source of nourishment and for curative and physical well-being. These additional supplements included walnuts, almonds, dark plums, hawthorn, citron, etc. The new products utilized both local ingredients and those from further away. Each candy continued to contain many different ingredients and the number of different items grew to more than one hundred different kinds. Suzhou sweetmeats are a model food developed then made popular for their medicinal functions. They rely on science and public practice, are designed from specific raw materials, integrate herbs and food, are healthy, and are a fine cultural example worthy of analysis and research.
_____
Weng Yang Yang is the Director of the new Chinese Dietary Culture Museum in Suzhou, China and she works at the Suzhou Food Office at 4 Stadium Road in Suzhou, China.

                                                                                                                                                       
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