The soan papdi is known by many names in India: sohan papdi, sanpapri, shom papri etc. It is cousin to both the patisa (which has similar ingredients, but is denser and not strand-like) and the sutarfeni. Some trace its relation to the Mysore Pak as well. But beyond India too, you’ll find variations of the soan papdi that attest to food that has traveled through time and place.
Dragon’s Beard Candy
In China, during the Han Dynasty, an enterprising cook came up with the idea for a floss like sugar based candy whose preparation process itself was nothing short of performance art. He felt it would entertain and delight the emperor: and he wasn’t wrong.
Made of sugar, maltose and rice flour (for coating the fine strands), the Dragon’s Beard candy was coveted for its texture and taste. It would be wrapped around a filling of nuts and fruits to enhance its richness. Its very elaborate making, however, meant that it was restricted to the royal and other Aristocratic households. Then, during the Communist revolution, it was seen as one of the symbols of the Han court and — like other perceived symbols — was (unlike soan papdi, actually) banned.
The art of making it was lost to all but a few, but the candy itself had already traveled to other lands, where it would melt with local influences to take on new forms.
In South Korea, the Dragon’s Beard Candy is found under the name “kkultarae” meaning honey skein. It is made of maltose and honey, and corn flour is the starch used to coat the strands. The fillings are similar to Dragon’s Beard Candy — candied nuts and fruit, and more recently chocolate. Its alternate name is Korean Court Cake, but despite the allusion to a regal heritage, the sweet is not believed to have a very old history in Korea, with some experts tracing its presence only to the last half century.
In Persian, “pashmak” means wool, but every record of this sweet notes that its texture is nothing like it. In fact, the most commonly used description is that of “skeins of unfinished silk thread” topped off with pistachio, rosewater, cardamom, sesame paste or saffron. Pashmak originated in the city of Yazd and is also known as Iranian cotton candy or Persian fairy floss. It is eaten by itself or accompanied by ice cream and other treats, and is a staple at shirini (sweet) shops. The word “sohan” is Persian in origin, and may illuminate the connection with the sohan/soan papdi as well.
Pashmak entered Turkey sometime during the 11th-13th centuries, and was tweaked and rechristened as pişmaniye or keten helva, meaning “linen sweet”. Among the earliest keten halva recipes (recorded in the 1400s) still available to historians lists the use of “clarified tail fat from a fat-tailed sheep” and honey (as substitutes for butter and sugar) and wheat flour.
Local lore holds that a confectioner tried to woo a voluptuous beauty by impressing her with the delicate sweet, and when he succeeded in making her his wife, named it “şismaniye” (“my fat lady”) but when their marriage floundered, changed it to “pişmaniye” (regret). Egypt’s halawa shaar and the Bosnian floss candy known as ćetenija are also variants of the pashmak, pişmaniye.