Monday, 23 January 2012

Elephant No. 113: Sugar Painting


A friend sent me a link a couple of days ago to a video featuring Chinese sugar painting—something I'd never heard of before. Since today is Chinese New Year, it seemed like a perfect day to try this out.

Sugar painting is just what it sounds like: painting with molten sugar. It is believed to have originated more than 400 years ago in China's southwestern Sichuan Province, likely featuring local figures. Gently satirical characters such as the Sugar Prime Minister of the Ming Dynasty, were probably the earliest sugar paintings. The technique was later adopted by folk artists in Sichuan Province, who used designs based on delicate paper cuts and shadow puppets.

Today, folk artists can still be seen producing sugar paintings in markets, parks, streets, and particularly around schools. Although their numbers have decreased steadily over the years, there is now renewed interest in sugar painting, both from the general public and the Chinese government. Current efforts to revive and sustain this charming art include officially sanctioned classes and national contests.

Traditional sugar-painting artists usually sit at small wooden stands which include a polished slab of marble, a source of heat, a small wok, a copper spoon and a small dial with a bamboo arrow.

Typical set-up for a traditional sugar artist.

The experience begins when a customer pays a small amount of money—usually 1 or 2 yuan (about 15–30 cents)—and spins the arrow. The dial features painted designs such as a bird, a dog, a basket of flowers and, most importantly, a Chinese dragon. The artist then produces whatever design the arrow indicates.

The artist uses melted white or brown sugar, which is kept liquid in the small wok. To create the design, the artist will scoop up some of the sugar in the copper spoon, which is also kept hot, drizzling thin, looping threads of sugar over the marble to create the design. These designs are most often two-dimensional, although three-dimensional objects are also possible. Because the liquid sugar will solidify as it cools, the painter has to work very quickly. It is also important to use continuous lines, so that the final piece holds together.

Traditional sugar artist at work in Sichuan Province.

For two-dimensional designs, the painter will often attach a bamboo skewer to the back with a bit of sugar "glue". The final painting is then lifted from the marble with a thin blade and handed to the customer. Photographs can't really do the process justice, so check out this video for an excellent look at a sugar painting being made.

For today's elephant, both my friend and I thought maple syrup might be a good choice of sugar to use for this. When I looked at the video however, I realized there might be a cheaper alternative: jaggery. Jaggery is a solid sugar made of lightly processed sugar cane juice or palm sap, which is what the stuff being melted in the video looked like to me. Fortunately, I live in a part of the city that abounds in ethnic groceries and shops, so I found this huge block of jaggery at an Indian food store for only three dollars. How I'll ever use up this much jaggery in my lifetime, I don't know—well, unless I go into the sugar-painting business, I suppose.

I didn't have a slab of marble, but I did have this decent-sized marble cheese-serving thing. I think it was a misbegotten gift from a cousin and, although I've never used it for cheese, it seemed perfect for sugar painting. I don't even know why I still had it, but now I'm glad I did.

For spoons, I bought these two for a couple of dollars each at local Chinese stores. When I asked about spoons for sugar painting, I got blank stares. I guess it really is a lost art. A bit of pantomine didn't help. Neither of these is copper, and I'm not sure they're the right shape, but I didn't have anything at home approximating a small, shallow ladle, so I'll do the best I can with these.

For a wok, well I'm a bit stuck. The ceramic cooktop on our stupid stove won't accept either of the woks we have, so I had to use a straight-sided pot, which turned out to be a bit awkward.

I've been making peanut brittle every Christmas since I was about twelve, so I hoped I'd be able to recognize when the sugar looked about right for painting. I was tempted to use a candy thermometer that has helpful markings such as "hard crack" on it, but I figured it would just get in the way, so I decided to wing it.

From the video, it looked like all you have to do is melt the jaggery, so that's what I decided to try first. I sliced off a sizeable amount from the block I bought and put it in the small pot.

Unfortunately, jaggery is a bit dry when it melts and doesn't have a thready consistency. This is where both corn syrup and maple syrup came in handy. The corn syrup gave the mixture a reasonable viscosity, and the maple syrup thinned it out just enough to make it thready. To start, I added about a tablespoon of corn syrup, and about half a tablespoon of maple syrup. Probably any reasonably thin syrup could be substituted for the maple syrup, but I don't know of any appropriate substitute for corn syrup.

The melting and mixing was done at medium-low heat. After everything was mixed, I kept the mixture on a low simmer, just to keep it molten. The longer it cooked, and the higher the temperature, the more likely that it would become very brittle, making it impossible to remove from the marble without cracking into bits.

Once I thought the mixture looked thin enough, I did a test on a piece of waxed paper.

This looked about right to me, so I began drawing an elephant.

I began to notice a couple of things. The first is that you need to keep the bottom of the spoon relatively clean, or sugar is going to go where you don't want it on your drawing. This is virtually impossible in a straight-sided pot, so if you do this and can use a small wok, it would make life easier. Secondly, I discovered that the sugar really does dry and harden very quickly, meaning that you can't do a lot with one ladleful of sugar—and you need to learn to work fast. Thirdly, I either didn't really have the right kind of sugar, or I hadn't cooked it right, because it was much darker and somewhat thicker than what I saw in the video.

This is my first elephant.

This is what happened to it after I put on the stick and gently pried it off the marble.

This indicated two things to me: the sugar mix was too brittle, and I had spaced the lines out too much. I added another tablespoon or so of corn syrup to the sugar in the pot, mixed it, and tried again.

This is my second elephant. As you can see, I added way more lines. It's not an elegant creature, but I had hopes that this one would stick together when I pried it away from the marble.

This is what happened when I pried it off. The prying part is a very delicate operation in my experience—nothing like the quick slide and lift on the video. I'm not sure why that was, but at least I got it off the marble more or less intact this time. In the closeup, you can see the slight scuff marks where it wanted to stay on the marble.

By the way, it had occurred to me that waxed paper might be a better surface, allowing the elephant to peel off. However, when I went back to the little squiggle I had done on waxed paper, I discovered that it was never going to peel off. Ever. I think the heat of the molten sugar might have permanently bonded it through the wax to the paper.

The following photos are just to show a few of the details to give you an idea of how the sugar was applied.

I'm reasonably pleased with my second elephant—enough that I didn't want to tempt fate with a third try. The whole process took me about an hour from start to finish, and it wasn't really that hard. My efforts are certainly not as pretty, even, or elegant, as work by real sugar-painting artists, but maybe I'll get the hang of it eventually.

If I decide to try this again, I think I might start with white rock sugar and corn syrup to see if I can get something more translucent. Then again, since this worked well enough, I might just stick with jaggery and two kinds of syrup. I also prefer this with the bumpy side showing, rather than the flat, scuffed side, so I think I would leave off the stick next time.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Today marks the start of the Year of the Dragon: a particularly auspicious year in the Chinese zodiac. According to medieval bestiaries, however, the dragon was not so lucky for elephants.

Isidore of Seville reported in the seventh century A.D. that elephants "give birth in secret and send their young to water or islands to protect them from their enemy the dragon, which kills elephants by binding them." The Westminster Bestiary of A.D. 1285 adds that dragons were also fond of drinking elephant blood to "cool their intestines."

The most rip-roaring account of the relationship between elephants and dragons, however, comes from Bartholomaeus Anglicus, who wrote in the thirteenth century A.D.: 

"Between elephants and dragons is everlasting fighting, for the dragon with his tail bindeth and spanneth the elephant, and the elephant with his foot and with his nose throweth down the dragon, and the dragon bindeth and spanneth the elephant's legs, and maketh him fall, but the dragon buyeth it full sore: for while he slayeth the elephant, the elephant falleth upon him and slayeth him. Also the elephant seeing the dragon upon a tree, busieth him to break the tree to smite the dragon, and the dragon leapeth upon the elephant, and busieth him to bite him between the nostrils, and assaileth the elephant's eyen, and maketh him blind sometime, and leapeth upon him sometime behind, and biteth him and sucketh his blood. And at the last after long fighting the elephant waxeth feeble for great blindness, in so much that he falleth upon the dragon, and slayeth in his dying the dragon that him slayeth. The cause why the dragon desireth his blood, is coldness of the elephant's blood, by the which the dragon desireth to cool himself."
According to a manuscript in the British Library from A.D. 1260, the best way to keep dragons away—one assumes from people—was to make a fire using the hair and bones of a baby elephant that had died of natural causes.

Elephant and dragon from the Aberdeen Bestiary, ca. A.D. 1200

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation 

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