Put down the milk chocolate: When traveling, sample candies made with salt, chili, and mung beans.
Thailand: Khanom Luk Chup
What it is: Marzipan, or some cousin of the almond paste, is common in many cultures, and often shaped into fruits or even small animals. Thailand has its own unique twist, which perhaps assuages guilt over eating too much: making the paste with mung beans and coconut milk, and then shaping the candies into tiny vegetables (preferably chili peppers). Sugar and jasmine water help create a glossy exterior that makes them almost too pretty to eat.
How it tastes: Mexican candy lovers will be disappointed—no actual pepper flavor here, but rather a mild coconut, mixed with the flowery aroma.
Where to get it: For all the intricate work, you can still buy a handful at street markets in Bangkok for about $3.
Image Credit: Sara Locke
What it is: Nothings says indulgence like yams and bean paste—at least in Japan. These candies go back to ancient times, beginning with a legend about an emperor’s aide who committed suicide after failing to deliver a royal snack. Today the treats don’t look like any kind of candy, for the most part, but rather like sushi, or even rubber erasers.
How it tastes: Mildly sweet, usually; traditional Yokan wagashi has a jellied consistency.
Where to get it: Confectionary Toraya, with boutiques in Tokyo, Kyoto, and even a few counters in New York City and Paris. The boutiques’ spartan displays under glass counters make them look like jewelry stores, but a tiny box of jellied red-bean Yokan costs only a few dollars.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Toraya Confectionery Co.Ltd.
London: Percy Pigs
What it is: Leave it to the Brits to work a little pork into their sweets. Percy Pigs, originally a penny candy that debuted around World War I, are made with pork gelatin, then decorated with a smiling piggy face. Perhaps saying something about the British definition of style, these candies recently got a shout-out from British Vogue for being fashionable. (In their defense, the Pigs also contain zero artificial ingredients.)
How it tastes: The grape- and raspberry-flavored treats will make you think of gummy bears (which, thankfully, don’t contain “bear gelatin”), but one fan in London notes a tingly aftereffect, “like the feeling on your tongue after you've swallowed a sip of Veuve Cliquot.” Could that be the porcine magic?
Where to get it: There are piggy knockoffs rooting around Canada and Europe, such as “petit cochons” in France, but don’t be fooled. True Percy Pigs can only be bought at department store Marks & Spencer, starting at less than $1 a bag. The beloved M&S also carries Percy Pig linens, Advent calendars, and (occasionally) oinking mugs. Interesting note: Just like the Royal family, this oh-so-British confection also has German roots (the candies are made there).
Image Credit: Courtesy of Marks & Spencer
Hong Kong: Dragon Beard Candy
What it is: Turkey, Iran, and China all share a candy tradition in floss halva, or pishmaniye, a mixture of sugar and maltose that gets hand-stretched until it turns unto fine strands. Pishmaniye literally translates into “regretfulness” (a reflection on how hard it is to make), but the Far East version sounds more fun: Icy Crispy Dragon Beard Candy, which boasts over 8,000 strands of sugar and maltose, hand-stretched and then wrapped around coconuts, peanuts, or sesame seeds.
How it tastes: Like an old-world cotton candy, though not as sweet. The tiny, brittle strands may linger on your mouth like a little dragon goatee, too.
Where to get it: It’s found all around Hong Kong: at markets, in the Excelsior Hotel, and in Kowloon Market at Hong Kong Airport.
Image Credit: I Concept Design Studio www.bamboogarden.com.hk
New Zealand: Chocolate Fish
What it is: Chocolate-covered “pineapple lumps” are a local favorite for Kiwis, but they’re still upstaged by Chocolate Fish, which have been around since the 1950s. They’re so beloved that they have inspired their own colloquialism: If you do something well, a Kiwi might say to you, “Give that man a chocolate fish.” No one at Cadbury, which now produces the candy, can explain either the origin of the fish shape or the compliment.
How it tastes: Mercifully un-fishy. Dark chocolate covers strawberry-marshmallow filling.
Where to get it: Groceries and convenience stores, for less than $1.
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.
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.
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?
Check out the slideshow above to see what candies people in other countries indulge in.