Li gao tang, the pear paste candy, is an old-fashioned local herbal remedy for coughs. In the past it was popular in Suzhou and anyone would buy it when they felt a sore throat.
Gu Hongkou, a 66-year-old resident of Midu Community, Shuangta Sub-district, Gusu District, is a pear paste candy maker with 30 years experience. He said the business is dying, but he hopes to have an heir to carry on his secret recipe.
“A piece of candy looks quite unremarkable, but actually, li gao tang uses many good ingredients,” said Gu Hongkou. Making syrup is the most critical process in making this candy. Crystal sugar and regular sugar must be added in the right order. When the sugar has melted, add pear juice to make the syrup. Freshly ground herbal medicines, such as Sichuan fritillaria, ephedra and loquat leaves, are evenly mixed into the syrup before the molding process begins.
“Each li gao tang maker has his own recipe. Recipes vary as there are many different schools. My recipe is called ‘one-hundred herbs li gao tang’. It uses 12 Chinese herbal medicines, and once it was unique in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai,” said Gu Hongkou.
Gu learnt the craft in the 1970s. He was introduced to it by a neighbor and worked as an apprentice to a famous li gao tang master, Lu Baozhen, for two years. “Master Lu was cautious about taking on an apprentice. He let me take care of trifle things for a period, and finally agreed to give me an apprenticeship when he was sure I was an honest person,” said Gu.
During his apprenticeship, Gu practiced how to make the syrup, helped Master Lu to sell the candy, and took care of menial chores. Gu slowly learnt the art of making the pear paste candy after two years of careful study.
Gu has a wooden mold of twenty candy patches. He made the mold over 20 years ago by himself. “Each patch is about the size of a man’s palm. So I usually divide each patch into six smaller cubes with a bamboo plate before the syrup is frozen. It’s more convenient for the customers.”
Nowadays there are far too many choices of medicines for easing coughing, kicking the low-profit li gao tang out of the market. As none of Gu’s children want to learn this craft, Gu cannot find an apprentice. Gu worries that there is no heir to pass on his secret recipe of li gao tang.