“Hong Kong is a food paradise”: this cliché baffled me a lot when I was small, because as a child, regular meals and main dishes were not my concern. All I cared was the variety of snacks I could afford with my pocket money. Even now, peanut and sesame candies are still on the top of my list, alongside with French toast and sweet-and-sour pork.
Back in the days when the notorious Kowloon Walled City still existed, building your own wooden cart and having some skills to cook would be enough to earn a living. However, besides curry fish balls and animal organs, there was a limited variety of handmade sweets for those craving sugar. Peanut and sesame candies were ones of the few confectionery to the grassroots. Known as faa1 saang1 tong2 (花生糖) — literally “peanut sugar” — the sweets are often embellished with a generous amount of sesame, (zi1 maa4 芝麻), so they are often referred to as faa1 saang1 zi1 maa4 tong2.
Rumour has it that the advent of peanut candies dates back to the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), when the rich had the option to escape the war zones, while the underprivileged struggled to stay away from starvation. Both maltose and peanuts are rich in energy, and mixing them together formed a portable energy bar. Peanuts can be easily found along the coastal area and are considered a symbol of longevity and prosperity. What’s better than having an cheap, portable and edible lucky charm?
What are they exactly?
The name is pretty self-explanatory: peanuts and maltose are all the ingredients you need to create these delicious nutty blocks. The only secret formula in the recipe is using the best quality peanuts and maltose. It is as easy to make as granola. Hongkongers over the age of 50 may tell you how they made peanut candies at home. Parents would fry the peanuts to achieve a golden brown colour, elder siblings would boil the maltose and the youngest would firmly compress the mixture to form one fine nutty block.
If you think it is simply a lump of sugar and peanuts which would taste just the same as peanut brittle, think again. When you have decided how greedy you should be for your first bite, the first thing you will feel is the curvature of the peanuts followed by a fragrant and slightly sweet taste. (Frying the peanuts before cooling them with the maltose highlights the nutty flavour). As you start munching on it, you will be amazed by the complex texture. The peanuts make every bite crunchy, while the maltose adds a soft chewiness and it’s this combination of taste and texture that gets people irresistibly addicted.
Do they come in another form?
Unlike many other traditional sweets, such as bean curd desserts, peanut candies have not changed through the years. There are variations, however. Besides the classic chewy, nutty candies, you may find there are some with peanuts mixed with desiccated coconuts, white sesame or black sesame. Not only do they deliver a different flavour, but they also offer a greater variety of sweetness, crunchiness and chewiness.
Nowadays, there are just two stores in Hong Kong still specialise in handmade peanut candies. They taste softer than the factory-made ones, which look more like nougats. When you get tired of nibbling the candy or you have had enough of peanuts, you can go for a lighter option, ming4 tong2 (明糖), which are mini blocks of sugary jelly covered with copious sesame. Ming4 is derived from the word tau3 ming4 (透明), which literally means “transparent.” They taste like jelly candies, except they are coated with sesame and made of maltose. If you have a sweet tooth and prefer soft candies to chewing gums, these one-bite goodies will certainly get you indulged.
Kei O (其奧)
Shop F, 36 Castle Peak Road, Yuen Long
Wo Kee Lung (和記隆)
7 Tak Ku Ling Road, Kowloon City
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.