Dragon Beard Candy: What Is It, Where Is It and How Do You Make It?

Dragon beard candy signed Montreal's Johnny Chin

Evelyn Reid 

Apart from Hong Kong where dragon beard candy stands are not uncommon, there are but a handful of places in the world that sell this rare and ancient confection. It's also possible to order dragon beard candy online but nothing comes close to eating it freshly prepared.

Stands have been reported in Beijing, Taipei, Singapore as well as New York City, Boston, Vancouver and Toronto, though Montrealer Johnny Chin says he was the first dragon beard candy master to introduce it to North America, back in November 1991, when he opened his shop in Montreal Chinatown.

But what makes Montreal's source of dragon beard candy so special? According to Johnny Chin, he makes the candy seven days a week. Apart from a stand in the Hong Kong International Airport that sells candy "seven times more expensive than mine," he says, "my shop might be the only place in the world that sells dragon beard candy every day."

01 of 07

Dragon Beard Candy: A Little History

chinese emperor dynasty imperial court ritual
Stringer / Getty Images

The legend of dragon beard candy dates back at least 2000 years but no one is sure of the exact season, decade or even century it was first made. Dragon beard candy masters, including Montreal's Johnny Chin, say it was created during the Tung Dynasty, better known as the Han Dynasty that lasted over 400 years (perhaps some refer to it as Tung because of Tung Chung-Shu, a scholar whose influence over Emperor Han Wu-ti was significant, convincing the Han clan to adopt Confucianism as the empire's official doctrine).

So once upon a day between 206 BCE and 220 CE, a Chinese Imperial Court chef wanted to please an emperor with a new confection. The fine silky strands that characterize the candy perhaps reminded the chef or someone in the Imperial Court of a dragon's beard—Toronto's Jimmy Poon says it was first called cat beard candy because of how the candy can stick to your face. The mythical dragon is the symbol of Chinese emperors, so naming it dragon beard candy must have seemed appropriate, especially since it was strictly reserved for emperors and maybe entourage at state banquets.

Centuries later, the art persisted, escaping the confines of the Forbidden City and brought forward to the general public. Chin's childhood memories include delighting in masters creating the candy's many thousand threads out of sugar on the streets of Hong Kong.

But then came the Chinese cultural revolution, nearly extinguishing over two thousand years of ancient candy making in the span of a decade, with the Red Guard threatening the execution of anyone engaging in activities linked to the West or old world China.

Even though then British-ruled Hong Kong was spared mainland China's fate, the art nearly died. In 1991, Johnny Chin claimed that maybe 10 dragon beard candy masters were left in the world.

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02 of 07

Who Is Johnny Chin?

johnny chin dragon beard candy montreal

Evelyn Reid

Bishop's University graduate Johnny Chin was working at the senior executive level as a financial controller for a Montreal company, seemingly on the fast track to financial security, enhanced social status and career success. But he wasn't particularly happy.

Returning to his hometown Hong Kong, he discovered the ancient art of dragon beard candy that charmed him as a child was on the brink of extinction as a direct result of the cultural revolution. By the late 80s, there were maybe four dragon beard masters left in Hong Kong. One of them was Chin's brother, who bribed a disgruntled elderly master into sharing the secret of the dragon beard for $5,000.

Apprenticing under his brother, Chin perfected the art -- one that apparently can take months to years to master -- and then returned to Montreal in 1991, intent on introducing the theatrical candy-making skill to North America, concerned that part of his heritage would vanish. Chin said to The Gazette in 1991: "That's why I want to make the candy -- to preserve part of my culture." He was also smitten by the idea of being able to interact with the community in ways he never could as a number-crunching controller.

Almost twenty years later with two children in tow -- who aren't yet sure if they want to follow in Dad's footsteps -- Johnny Chin is working seven days a week in his Chinatown shop and thanks to his customers -- an assortment of tourists and locals -- he's picked up Italian and Spanish, in addition to speaking fluent English, French and his first language, Cantonese.

After enjoying the show and indulging in a couple of candies, each under one dollar, Johnny Chin generously shared with me how he makes this rare candy, a morsel of imperial history that must be eaten fresh in one mouthful to feel each delicate thread melt into the chewy center.

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03 of 07

How to Make Dragon Beard Candy: Step 1

how to make dragon beard candy johnny chin montreal
Photo © Evelyn Reid

How to Make Dragon Beard Candy: Step 1

Johnny Chin first takes a solid but gooey chunk of either sugar, corn syrup or sugar cane based gel (here's a video that shows how the gel is made) and he dips it in sugar dough so it doesn't stick all over his hands.

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04 of 07

How to Make Dragon Beard Candy: Step 2

how to make dragon beard candy johnny chin montreal
Photo © Evelyn Reid

How to Make Dragon Beard Candy: Step 2

Johnny Chin now fashions the gooey chunk of sugar or corn syrup into a donut, preparing to pull and twist it no less than 13 times, the secret to making dragon beard candy.

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05 of 07

How to Make Dragon Beard Candy: Step 3

how to make dragon beard candy johnny chin montreal
Photo © Evelyn Reid

How to Make Dragon Beard Candy: Step 3

Is it slight of hand or years of practice that explains how Johnny Chin transforms a chunk of jelly goo into 8,192 paper thin strands in 40 seconds? Pulling and twisting the gunk in a figure 8 motion, doubling it 13 times, my eyes couldn't keep up with the "secret" of dragon beard candy. And Johnny swears the number is accurate, "remember, I was a controller!"

And now, for the dragon beard filling.

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06 of 07

How to Make Dragon Beard Candy: Step 4

how to make dragon beard candy johnny chin montreal
Photo © Evelyn Reid

How to Make Dragon Beard Candy: Step 4

Johnny Chin now takes the 8192 strands of paper thin sugar, cutting them into a more manageable length, gently wrapping the silky threads in a circular fashion around a crunchy center of ground peanuts, chocolate, coconut and sesame seeds.

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07 of 07

Dragon Beard Candy: What Does It Taste Like and Where Can I Find It?

dragon beard candy taste montreal
Photo © Evelyn Reid

Dragon Beard Candy: What Does It Taste Like?

What's interesting about dragon beard candy is how people describe in different ways. I asked a group of ladies who watched as Johnny Chin worked his magic and each had a different response. One said it tasted like taffy, another said it was like eating baklava but less sticky, and yet another was reminded of nougat.

I agree with all three of them and yet, none of them. Dragon beard candy is sweet, but not too much, and it has a hint of saltiness. My favorite part is feeling the threaded texture of the dragon beard melt in my mouth, turning into a chewy layer that melds in with the crunchy center.

But frankly, none of these descriptions do the candy justice. You really must try Johnny Chin's dragon beard candy first hand to understand why it's so unique. And ask him to make it in front of you!

Dragon Beard Candy by Johnny Chin

52B de la Gauchetière, corner of Clark; Place d'Armes Metro
INFO: (514) 529-4601

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