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26/02/2018 - 10:26

Sesame candies: A three-generation practice

Under the shades of Thuy Bieu’s thanh tra (pomelo) trees laden with fruits, visitors from far away lands were excited to experience the steps in making the sesame candy. The trade of making this specialty of Hue has been handed down to the third generation.

Ms. Yen demonstrates the process of making candies for tourists

The chef in charge that day was a 24-year-old man with an impressive name: Ho Xuan Viet Nam. He is the third generation in the 150-year-old house in Thuy Bieu, which has now become a tourist destination, called Xuan Dai garden house. Nam is the youngest of Mr. Ho Xuan Dai's eight children.

More than two years ago, Nam was a third-year student at Hue University but decided to drop out of school to operate garden-house tours with his family, taking visitors to Thuy Bieu Thanh tra Village and show them how to make sesame candies with the secret learned from his mother.

The tourists were gathering around the table in the corner of the lush green garden laden with fruits. The cooking utensils consisted only of a small gas cooker, a cast iron pan, a thin cutting board, a small bamboo tube used as a rolling pin, and a small plate of roasted sesame and peanuts.

A kid visitor tries rolling sesame candy

Waiting until the pan was well heated, Nam quickly poured a little sugar and water in, and stirred until the mixture’s color turned to that of amber. Then the sesame and peanuts were put into the pan and then quickly stirred evenly until thickened, and the mixture was poured onto the wooden cutting board. The visitors excitedly used the bamboo tube to roll the mixture quickly. When the candy was thin enough, they used a knife to cut it into small pieces. In a short moment, sweet pieces of candies were presented on the plate for the visitors who were filled with excitement.

Tasting the crispy rustic candy with sips of hot tea on a late autumn day, visitors could smell the aroma of sesame and enjoy the buttery taste of peanuts blended with the fine sweetness of sugar.

Speaking of the trade, Ms. Le Thi Bach Yen, Nam’s mother said that it was a family heirloom. She learned to make it when she became a daughter-in-law of a family in Nguyet Bieu village. The family, of a noble lineage in Nguyen Dynasty and with a culinary tradition, has handed down the candy-making skill through many generations. "At the beginning, the sesame candy was made on the Lunar New Year to treat our guests, or as gifts, so far it has become a brand-name," Ms. Yen shared.

Having more than 70 years of age and 50 years of candy-making experience, to Ms. Yen, making sesame candies seems to be simple but in fact quite “tricky”. She has many times wanted to teach the local people to develop this specialty of Thuy Bieu, but according to Ms. Yen, many people came to learn, but they did not succeed in making satisfactory products.

With regard to the arcana of the trade, Ms. Yen said that the decisive factor was the cooking of sugar. "If the sugar is undercooked, then the candy will not be crispy. If the sugar is overcooked, the candy then will be dry and bitter. To get the sugar right, it is important to be able to feel the consistency at the end of the chopsticks; you must see when the sugar turns from yellow to golden amber. Each batch of candies should be at just right amount, made little by little; you cannot make a huge amount of it at one time; you cannot rush either," Ms. Yen explained.

In order to have good batches of candies, each year, in the harvest season, Ms. Yen goes to the farmers’ houses to buy sesame grown on the alluvial banks along the Huong River. Sesame seeds must be soaked in water, dried in the sun, and husked to get the ivory cores. Sesame, before being poured into the sugar to make candies, must be roasted.

Finished sesame candies made by visitors

For the visitors to understand the sophistication of the profession, Ms. Yen took the pan to roast the sesame. On the hot pan, heated sesame popping up sounds really fun with every gentle, steady move of her hand. When the aroma emanated from the roasted sesame  and the pop-up sound became regular, Ms. Yen put out the fire, but she still stirred the sesame until the pan cooled down. "If you aren’t quick enough and don’t control the fire well enough, the sesame will get burnt," Ms. Yen explained.

Now I understand the word "tricky" that Ms. Yen used to refer to the complication of making sesame candies. It requires the maker to be calm, delicate, and careful. For this reason, even though she has eight children, only Nam is the only one to succeed her in this trade.

It is the sophistication that makes the Thuy Bieu sesame candy distinctive. It is special just like the handle-broken cast iron pan used by its owner in the cooking show for visitors. Many people are surprised to know that the small cast iron pan has been passed down for generations, as a valuable heirloom.

Ms. Yen said that she had gone to many places to have new cast iron pans made, but she was not satisfied with any.

It is amazing that only in that old pan does the traditional sesame candy in Thuy Bieu garden obtain the necessary crispiness, aroma, and fineness as it should have.

Carefully preserved, Thuy Bieu sesame candies have now followed visitors everywhere together with their distinct and wonderful feeling about the people and land of Thuy Bieu.

Story: Kim Oanh

Photos: Vo Nhan - Bui Vu

 

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