On the 23rd or 24th of the twelfth month, the most important holiday of the lunar calendar commences in the kitchen, enshrining a color print out with candy and wine.
Chinese New Year gathers everyone in the kitchen, not only for the food that it produces but the deity who is in charge of it. After a year of monitoring each household occupants’ moral conducts, the deity known as Zao Wang Ye 灶王爷–somewhat like Santa Claus–ascends to Heaven to relay an annual report on people’s behaviors to the Jade Emperor. Those on the naughty list would subsequently receive their punishment in the coming year.
In hopes of a good report, our clever ancestors developed several tricks to deceive or bribe the god, which—to our luck—have solidified as Chinese New Year traditions.
The Origin of Zao Tang 灶糖
The devout kitchen god believers would set up a miniature shrine with Zao Wang Ye’s statue in their kitchen, but Chinese nowadays turn to the self-adhesive paper poster version in their homes. While we’ve adapted traditions to the our more modern times, there’s still one thing that should not be simplified: the Kitchen God’s food. Our clever ancestors firmly believed that no foul language could come out of a sweet mouth. With that wisdom, they invented various sweet treats called to Zao Tang 灶糖 bribe Zao Wang Ye before he reported to the omnipotent Emperor Jade.
In northern China, teams of three candy chefs work behind the closed door of a boiler room, twirling and pulling on the piping hot elastic maltose toffee as thick as a boa constrictor. With the soft toffee dangling between their arms, the master chef would suddenly holler before kicking open the door––behind him a burst of steam––pulling the toffee into the sub-zero winter night. He is followed by the second and third chef, stretching and exposing the maltose into finger width thin rope, and what in their hands instantly turns into crispy candy filled with air bubbles and tunnels––that was the old-fashion way of making Zao Tang, the offering candy.
As more began populating the naughty list, some believed there needed to be stronger intervention: the candy not only had to be sweet, but sticky enough to seal Zao Wang Ye’s lips from talking. Varieties of the treats were thus invented to partake in the sticky business, including rice balls filled with red bean paste, sweet rice cakes, candied nuts, candied yam, taro, and even candied fruits.
Perhaps discovered by their own experiences, our ancestors kicked it one notch higher by intoxicating the kitchen god with wine so he could not provide a full report.
Candied Sweet Potatoes
On the 23rd, my family made candied sweet potatoes with spun sugar. Coated in a melted sugar glaze, the sweet potatoes tangle themselves within spun sugar.
While this dish itself is quite decorative and uncustomary to my Chinese American family, we utilized the sticky power of this sweet treat to bring our sister––who is away in college––back for the reunion dinner on the Chinese New Year Eve. Those who make sweets together stick together.
Don’t underestimate the simple ingredients. This recipe by far has been one of the most challenging dishes I’ve attempted to make; sugar is a tough element that beckons anyone with culinary bravery to temper with. Though I must admit that I’ve not yet perfected the craft, I had a blast standing on a ladder in my kitchen at 9 PM with a pan over my head. I hope you do too. Please take extreme caution, both frying the sweet potatoes and tempering sugar can be very hazardous because the high temperatures.
- Sweet potato 500 grams
- Sugar 100 grams
- Water 50 grams
- Cooking oil for frying
- Candy Thermometer
- Wax paper
- SETUP: Line your kitchen counter with wax paper and set up a stool for you to stand on for the magic show in the later step.
2. PREP & FRY SWEET POTATOES: Cut sweet potatoes into 2x 2 cm chunks. Fry them in the hot oil till cooked. Set aside.
3. PREP SPUN SUGAR: In a medium saucepan, add in sugar and water. On high heat, cook till boil, do NOT stir because it will form undesirable crystals.
4. Once the mixture is completely melted and boiling, swirl the pan very gently to mix, and turn down the flame to medium low. You are going to closely watch the temperature rise. It will be helpful to use a candy thermometer because the ideal temperature for the sugar solution is set at 375 to 390 F (190 to 200 C), when the mixture turns into an amber color and smells like heaven (now I think like a deity). Once your sugar solution reaches that temperature, you have a very small window of time to work with the syrup before it is either burned or hardened. Please be very careful when you work swiftly with something scorching hot.
5. Once the temperature reaches 375 to 390 F, spoon out half of the syrup into a flat heat-resistant dish. Set aside but close by.
6. GLAZE SWEET POTATO: Toss the fried sweet potatoes into the saucepan to coat them with the remaining syrup. Plate them right away.
7. PERFORM THE SPUN SUGAR: Now, it’s time to flex your agility by quickly hopping onto a stool. Over the covered countertop, pick up the flat dish with the hot syrup, and give the plate a swirl to coat the bottom of plate evenly.
8. Raise the plate high (but not over your head please), then flip and hold the dish upside-down. You will see the sticky syrup drips few drops initially then it starts to drip silk strings. Rock your arms gently side-to-side; a web of golden silk will start to pile.
9. Working the silk strings while they are soft, place them around the candied sweet potatoes. I guarantee Zao Wang Ye will be pleased and put you on the “nice” list.