A sweet tradition to start the Spring Festival season
Today is the 23rd day of the last lunar month, known as the “Little New Year” (some regions mark it on the 24th). Symbolizing the start of the Spring Festival season, the holiday is usually celebrated by doing chores: cleaning the house, bathing, pasting the Spring Festival couplets, and other necessary tasks to ensure a festive New Year.
But it’s not all work and no play—not when there’s candy to be made.
Zaotang (灶糖), literally “Kitchen Candy,” is a sweet treat made of maltose, used as a sacrifice to the Kitchen God. The Kitchen Candy comes in a variety of shapes. The stick-shaped kind, with a thickness of about two centimeters, is called “关东糖 (Guandong Candy)”; the round kind is called “糖瓜 (Sugar Melon).”
Zaotang is only produced around the Little New Year, when most parts of China are under freezing temperatures, so that the candies can be sold on the street and the tiny bubbles inside the candy create a special crispy taste. It’s said that authentic Guandong Candy is very hard and firm, and can only be broken with a knife. But usually, the zaotang sold on the street have bubbles in the center, which make it easier to chew.
The origin of this candy can be attributed to folk worship of the Kitchen God, also known as the Stove God. The lowest-ranking deity in the traditional Chinese mythology, 灶君 (Zaojun, “Lord of the Stove”) is believed to have been worshiped in China since the earliest recorded history. He is in charge of the kitchen and family protection, and a portrait of him is usually placed in front of the hearth, so he can observe everything that happens in the family during the year (some regions add a portrait of his wife).
On the Little New Year, the Kitchen God goes back to Heaven and reports to the Jade Emperor on the family’s behavior for the year, and the Emperor rewards or punishes the family based on what he hears. This role makes the Kitchen God one of the most worshiped gods in traditional folklore, but in case making regular sacrifices to his portrait doesn’t work, the humans aren’t above subterfuge. They also make a sweet but sticky candy to set in front of the god or smear on his portrait, so that, depending on the version you believe, the Kitchen God will only say sweet things about them—or alternatively, it’ll stick his teeth together so he can’t say anything bad.
The worship of the Kitchen God has weakened in modern years, but the candy is still available as a street snack or in stores—grab yourself a piece of zaotang, and have a sweet New Year.