It doesn't matter how many times it gets explained to me: the making of Yao's Dragon Beard Candy will always seem magical.
The blog Food in Mouth recently did a great job breaking down the step-by-step process, pictures included. Here's the gist: there is a huge vat of powdered sugar. When that powdered sugar is pulled by our friend Yao in the cart, it somehow forms these incredibly fine stands of sugary goodness. Once the strands are numerous enough to make the ponytail (I know comparing this to hair sounds gross, but it is called "dragon beard candy") thick enough, then Yao starts pulling off four- to five-inch-long pieces. He then spoons in a combination of peanuts and coconut, and folds the strands over, wrapping the filling in a cocoon of sugar. When you consider the amount of work that goes into each candy's creation, six of them seem well worth the $3.00.
One of my favorite things about dragon beard candy, other than the name, is that there are so many ways to eat it, each of which is accompanied by its own individual textural experience. Let me count the ways...
1. The pop-the-whole-thing-in-your-mouth method: This is the method Yao extolled as I stood on the street looking down at my delicious candies without the slightest clue as to how to attack them. First, the heat of your mouth causes all the little sugar strands to melt together. Then, you start chewing. The first thing you notice in the peanut and coconut filling—a soft crunch. Then you start getting a nice little granular bite from the sugar. Then, tragically, the piece is gone.
2. Itty bitty bites/the dissection method: I'm one of those people, to the great chagrin of my little brother, who likes to take small bites in an effort to make my treat last as long as possible. Dragon Beard candy is different when eaten in smaller pieces: each strand falls separately on your tongue, and the sugar tastes more delicate as a result.
3. The method that would make your mother cringe: Here's what you do: grab the cocoon by two fingers at both ends and pull slowly. Then eat it like a noodle. As a warning, this method and the one before it are by far the messiest. The issue is that the thin layer of powdered sugar coating each candy has the same tendency as that which coats powered donuts. A shower of little white specks is unavoidable.
4. The method in which you conceive an experiment, try your hardest not to eat the last dragon beard candy cocoon because you want to see the results of the experiment, and then eat it anyways: I had heard that dragon beard candy does not hold up well, and wanted to see if this were actually the case. I lasted about an hour before I caved.
A word on location: I heard that this cart was located on Canal between Mott and Mulberry. Then I heard it was located on Canal between Elizabeth and Mott. I found it on the south side of Canal between Baxter and Centre. So be prepared to look around a little.
Yao's Dragon Beard Candy
General vicinity of Canal St. and Mott St., NY (map)
11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. every day