Image: Strange Japanese candy
Toraya Confectionery Co. Ltd.
Nothings says indulgence like yams and bean paste — at least in Japan’s wagashi treats. The sweets don’t look like any kind of candy, for the most part, but rather like sushi, or even rubber erasers.
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updated 2/23/2009 10:15:41 AM ET 2009-02-23T15:15:41

When Americans eat gummy bears, we blithely assume that “bear” is not actually an ingredient. But travel to Great Britain, and that’s not an assumption one should make. After all, Percy Pigs — a candy that debuted around World War I — gets its name not just from the smiling piggy face, but also from the pork gelatin that gives the candy its bulk.

In fact, in many spots around the world, sweets are not always sweet. Sure, nothing says “I love you” like candy, but the translation can vary greatly, placing the mung bean, the chili pepper and even a whiff of ammonia in the same league as rich, Madagascar chocolate.

For one thing, sweetness itself is open to interpretation. “Americans like things fairly sweet compared to other countries, but not as sweet as what you find in Middle Eastern countries,” says Carole Bloom, a confectioner and author of nine cookbooks, including the upcoming “Bite-Size Desserts.”

Of course, local ingredients often play a role into what becomes candy. Beans, for example, come up a lot in Asian sweets. They’re turned into marzipan-like pastes and then may be molded into treats that are perhaps more about show than indulgence.

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In Madrid, a booming supply of flowers has created a local favorite for nearly a century. And in Mexico, a bottomless tolerance for chili powder may have you weeping with either joy or agony.

The variations are as wide as they are widespread. In Japan, for instance, the beloved Kit Kat (which originated in England) has been available (in limited batches) in flavors like melon, green tea and even grilled corn.

But any of those may sound like a Champagne truffle compared to the idea of inserting a morsel of salmiakki — salt licorice — into an otherwise unsuspecting piece of chocolate. That’s exactly what happens across Europe, and especially in Scandinavia. A palate accustomed to nougat and caramel would likely dispute the label “candy” being applied to something that reminds even its fans of ammonia.

Some of these candies find their way to America, of course (gummy bears, for example, were born in Germany), but the U.S. hasn’t exactly been pushing the boundaries of candy creation. (One exception: the California-based company HotLix, which inserts insects, larvae and scorpions into candies). While Americans are beginning to enjoy darker chocolate as opposed to milk chocolate, says Bloom, we tend to like our candies pretty tame.

Still, it may be time to expand our horizons. As one fan of Percy Pigs says, popping one of these treats is not unlike “that first sip of Veuve Cliquot.”

Who can argue with that?

Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation

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