Mao Chen's handmade nougats are made of fresh and wholesome ingredients-and fairy tales. Her online business is booming, she tells Fan Zhen about her toothsome tour de force.
When Mao Chen first read the story of how two children ate magic marshmallows made of clouds and flew to deliver dinner for their father on a rainy day, the idea of linking sweets and fairy tales became an inspiration.
She says food satisfies the palate but also motivates the imagination. That is why her online shop selling handmade nougats is called Cloud Jaja, and her sweets are given lyrical names like Beyond the Clouds, A Place in the Heart, Remote Mountains and Sinking Moon.
Mao says she hopes to convey a sense of calm and happiness, and the different flavors can help her customers' imaginations take off.
She has evidently hit on a successful formula. Already, she has collected 7,250 positive comments on Taobao, one of China's largest e-markets, in just 18 months. These positive comments give credibility to the products sold online and are what prospective customers will refer to before they buy.
"Soothing and healthy nougats with stories-that's the kind of candies I want to make," she says.
Just two years ago, Mao was not thinking of starting a candy shop. She was a human resources manager and was starting to learn how to make nougats because of her 4-year-old daughter.
"If you have kids, you will know how kids love sweets. I did not trust the candies in the market because of all the food-safety scandals," Mao says. "If I made them myself, I could at least decide what ingredients go into the sweets."
What she did not expect was the popularity of the handmade nougats among her daughter's classmates and her own friends.
"Mothers were asking me to make more because their kids enjoyed them so much and they trusted the ingredients I used."
Orders arrived one after another in quick succession. She started to make nougats for weddings, and the next thing she knew, all her friends were asking her to open a shop so they can buy regularly from her.
When it comes to working in the kitchen, Mao is both a perfectionist and a minimalist.
She only adds what is necessary and lets the ingredients take care of the rest. She buys butter imported from France, baby milk powder from New Zealand and cranberries from the United States.
As for the almonds, Mao chooses the fresh raw nuts harvested the same year and roasts them herself in case there are additives.
Maintaining quality is never easy.
"Everything is getting more expensive. The price of almonds has risen 50 percent in the past year." Unwilling to give in to inflation, Mao keeps looking for new ways to get good and safe ingredients.
As a frequent visitor to the Beijing Country Fair, the capital's most recognized weekly organic farmers' market, Mao decided to experiment with purple sweet potatoes.
In experimenting with locally sourced seasonal ingredients, she feels she is doing her part in promoting the healthy eating trend.
"Beijing Country Fair is the platform that gathers people who care about healthy and safe food. I think running an online shop is another connection point."
She says that, during her research into online shops, she found a group of people who are not farmers or artisans but still endeavor to look for traditional food producers in the villages, write stories about their food and craft, repackage their produce and promote it to the outside world.
"I'm greatly encouraged because now I know there are people out there who care about good food. It's no use complaining about the food safety issues all the time really. Doing what we can to help is more important."
Online shoppers also gave Mao other insights. One told her she bought the nougats as gifts for an American professor who was leaving Beijing. It occurred to Mao that people might remember a place by its food, "just like the souvenirs we usually bring back from holidays as presents".
Mao wraps her nougats with recyclable parchment paper and puts them into glass jars or paper containers with specially designed logos. Every gift box, tied up with ribbons, is sent out with a card on which she writes a greeting to each customer.
"I heard that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. I'm not there yet, but I'm on my way."
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Mao Chen's nougats are made with macadamia nuts. Phoitos Provided to China Daily
Mao Chen quit her job as a human resources manager in Beijing and started a workshop producing handmade nougats with different flavors.
(China Daily 01/24/2014 page22)