World's Strangest Candy
When Americans eat gummy bears, we blithely assume that “bear” is not actually an ingredient. But travel to Great Britain, and that’s not an assumption one should make. After all, Percy Pigs—a candy that debuted around World War I—gets its name not just from the smiling piggy face, but also from the pork gelatin that gives the candy its bulk.
In fact, in many spots around the world, sweets are not always sweet. Sure, nothing says ‘I love you’ like candy, but the translation can vary greatly, placing the mung bean, the chili pepper, and even a whiff of ammonia in the same league as rich, Madagascar chocolate.
For one thing, sweetness itself is open to interpretation. “Americans like things fairly sweet compared to other countries, but not as sweet as what you find in Middle Eastern countries,” says Carole Bloom, a confectioner and author of nine cookbooks, including the upcoming “Bite-size Desserts.”
Of course, local ingredients often play a role into what becomes candy. Beans, for example, come up a lot in Asian sweets. They’re turned into marzipan-like pastes and then may be molded into treats that are perhaps more about show than indulgence. In Madrid, a booming supply of flowers has created a local favorite for nearly a century. And in Mexico, a bottomless tolerance for chili powder may have you weeping with either joy or agony.
The variations are as wide as they are widespread. In Japan, for instance, the beloved Kit Kat (which originated in England) has been available (in limited batches) in flavors like melon, green tea, and even grilled corn.
But any of those may sound like a Champagne truffle compared to the idea of inserting a morsel of salmiakki—salt licorice—into an otherwise unsuspecting piece of chocolate. That’s exactly what happens across Europe, and especially in Scandinavia. A palate accustomed to nougat and caramel would likely dispute the label “candy” being applied to something that reminds even its fans of ammonia.
Some of these candies find their way to America, of course (gummy bears, for example, were born in Germany), but the U.S. hasn’t exactly been pushing the boundaries of candy creation. (One exception: the California-based company HotLix, which inserts insects, larvae, and scorpions into candies). While Americans are beginning to enjoy darker chocolate as opposed to milk chocolate, says Bloom, we tend to like our candies pretty tame.
Still, it may be time to expand our horizons. As one fan of Percy Pigs says, popping one of these treats is not unlike “that first sip of Veuve Cliquot.” Who can argue with that?
Thailand: Khanom Luk Chup
What it is: Marzipan, or some cousin of the almond paste, is common in many cultures, and often shaped into fruits or even small animals. Thailand has its own unique twist, which perhaps assuages guilt over eating too much: making the paste with mung beans and coconut milk, and then shaping the candies into tiny vegetables (preferably chili peppers). Sugar and jasmine water help create a glossy exterior that makes them almost too pretty to eat.
How it tastes: Mexican candy lovers will be disappointed—no actual pepper flavor here, but rather a mild coconut, mixed with the flowery aroma.
Where to get it: For all the intricate work, you can still buy a handful at street markets in Bangkok for about $3.
What it is: Nothings says indulgence like yams and bean paste—at least in Japan. These candies go back to ancient times, beginning with a legend about an emperor’s aide who committed suicide after failing to deliver a royal snack. Today the treats don’t look like any kind of candy, for the most part, but rather like sushi, or even rubber erasers.
How it tastes: Mildly sweet, usually; traditional Yokan wagashi has a jellied consistency.
Where to get it: Confectionary Toraya, with boutiques in Tokyo, Kyoto, and even a few counters in New York City and Paris. The boutiques’ spartan displays under glass counters make them look like jewelry stores, but a tiny box of jellied red-bean Yokan costs only a few dollars.
London: Percy Pigs
What it is: Leave it to the Brits to work a little pork into their sweets. Percy Pigs, originally a penny candy that debuted around World War I, are made with pork gelatin, then decorated with a smiling piggy face. Perhaps saying something about the British definition of style, these candies recently got a shout-out from British Vogue for being fashionable. (In their defense, the Pigs also contain zero artificial ingredients.)
How it tastes: The grape- and raspberry-flavored treats will make you think of gummy bears (which, thankfully, don’t contain “bear gelatin”), but one fan in London notes a tingly aftereffect, “like the feeling on your tongue after you've swallowed a sip of Veuve Cliquot.” Could that be the porcine magic?
Where to get it: There are piggy knockoffs rooting around Canada and Europe, such as “petit cochons” in France, but don’t be fooled. True Percy Pigs can only be bought at department store Marks & Spencer, starting at less than $1 a bag. The beloved M&S also carries Percy Pig linens, Advent calendars, and (occasionally) oinking mugs. Interesting note: Just like the Royal family, this oh-so-British confection also has German roots (the candies are made there).
Hong Kong: Dragon Beard Candy
What it is: Turkey, Iran, and China all share a candy tradition in floss halva, or pishmaniye, a mixture of sugar and maltose that gets hand-stretched until it turns unto fine strands. Pishmaniye literally translates into “regretfulness” (a reflection on how hard it is to make), but the Far East version sounds more fun: Icy Crispy Dragon Beard Candy, which boasts over 8,000 strands of sugar and maltose, hand-stretched and then wrapped around coconuts, peanuts, or sesame seeds.
How it tastes: Like an old-world cotton candy, though not as sweet. The tiny, brittle strands may linger on your mouth like a little dragon goatee, too.
Where to get it: It’s found all around Hong Kong: at markets, in the Excelsior Hotel, and in Kowloon Market at Hong Kong Airport (about $20 a box).
New Zealand: Chocolate Fish
What it is: Chocolate-covered “pineapple lumps” are a local favorite for Kiwis, but they’re still upstaged by Chocolate Fish, which have been around since the 1950s. They’re so beloved that they have inspired their own colloquialism: If you do something well, a Kiwi might say to you, “Give that man a chocolate fish.” No one at Cadbury, which now produces the candy, can explain either the origin of the fish shape or the compliment.
How it tastes: Mercifully un-fishy. Dark chocolate covers strawberry-marshmallow filling.
Where to get it: Groceries and convenience stores, for less than $1.
Finland: Salt Licorice
What it is: In a nation that treasures pine-tar syrup, it’s no wonder their candies would challenge American palates, too. Salty licorice, or salmiakki, contains a hefty dose of ammonium chloride, which may sound like a kitchen sanitizer but is merely a cousin of salt. Scandinavians are wild about salmiakki, though, and use it to flavor vodka and fish; it also gets raves as a treat for pet horses and monkeys.
How it tastes: Awful, at least to first-timers—like a cross between black licorice, salt, and ammonia. “It grows on you,” one Finn assures us.
Where to get it: You can find varieties of salt licorice all over Scandinavia in convenience stores or movie theaters, for less than a dollar. Karl Fazer cafes, in Helsinki, also offer plenty of liqueur-centered chocolates, and even a famed chocolate-flavored tea.
What it is: These chocolate-covered bonbons may not be extreme, but they do inspire controversy. They were first made by Salzburg’s Fürst confectionary in the late 1800s as a tribute to native son Amadeus. But just as Mozart himself was known to make a few lax business moves, the confectioner neglected to trademark Mozartkugeln, so same-named copycats have abounded all over Austria and Germany ever since. One way to spot an imposter: a flat surface on any part of the sphere—a sign of industrial production.
How it tastes: Mighty fine, to mainstream chocolate lovers. The center is green-pistachio marzipan, covered in nougat.
Where to get it: At one of the four Fürst Cafés, which also offers candies named after other Salzburg “celebs,” such as a former archbishop and the physicist Doppler (what, no von Trapps?). You can buy a dozen Mozartkugeln for a little under $20.
Paris: Gold bars, big bears
What it is: No surprise, the French can make your classic chocolate bar feel like the sugar equivalent of a gray sweatshirt. Consider Patrick Roger, a chocolatier who has won acclaim for his exotic flavor combinations as well as his over-the-top presentations (one of his most popular bonbon boxes is three feet long). His latest: a praline made to look like a rough-hewn gold bar (a pricey $40 a box—but a solid value compared to actual gold).
How it tastes: A far cry from the pralines you find in American Tex-Mex restaurants, these bars are a melty, slightly crunchy combination of crushed nuts, cocoa butter, and chocolate, and coated with a sheet of 24-carat gold.
Where to get it: Patrick Roger has four boutiques, including one on Blvd. St.-Germain. Even if you don’t buy a chocolate, it’s worth the trip to check out his outrageous chocolate sculptures on display, from life-sized penguins and dark-chocolate black bears to French president Nicholas Sarkozy. The bears are currently on sale for anywhere from $13,000 to $65,000.
What it is: The people of Mexico are bold when it comes to their sweets—so bold as to alienate many a candy lover from other nations. It’s not unusual, for instance, to find chili powder in candies—or even dusted onto them, as with chili-coated, corn-shaped lollipops. Salsagheti, however, takes gusto to a whole new realm. The watermelon-favored candy straws come with a tube of “gusano tamarind” sauce that one can apply to make it look like, yes, spaghetti. (Logical, right?)
How it tastes: Most first-timers would prefer that it tasted more like spaghetti. Tamarind has a strong, pungent taste, and Salsagheti’s sweet-meets-spicy-meets-pseudo-spaghetti is more than many candy lovers can bear. This may be the confectionary equivalent of swallowing the tequila worm.
Where to get it: Groceries and convenience store for less than $1.
Madrid: Violet Candies
What it is: Perhaps because of the expanse of blooming violets north of Madrid, people here love violet candies. Local confectioner Mariano Gil started selling them in 1915—both sugarcoated natural violets, as well as small, flower-shaped candies flavored with violet essence. They’ve attracted lots of fans over the years (including, once upon a time, both King Alfonso’s wife and his mistress).
How it tastes: The candies themselves taste delicately floral; with natural violets, most people agree that you mostly taste sugar.
Where to get it: La Violeta—at both its original shop in Plaza de Canalejas, as well as a newer boutique in Calle Serrano—is as heralded for its packaging (including glass and porcelain cases) as much as the sweets themselves. There’s a reason the shop catered to kings: a couple pounds of violet sweets today costs about $60, while the natural violets will run you $150.