Golden Moons

Virgil Evetts demystifies mooncakes, the snack of choice for Chinese at this time of year.

by Virgil Evetts | Cuisine issue #154 | Thursday, 8 November, 2012
They’re among the world’s most popular sweet treats, baked and moulded by the hundreds of millions each year. Depending on who you believe, they can make you live a long and prosperous life or a short and steadily obese one. They are mooncakes and chances are, you’ve probably never tasted one. Intrinsically linked to the Chinese mid-autumn festival, mooncakes are something like an Asian counterpart to panettone, in that they are more often given as gifts than bought for one’s own consumption, and they have symbolic links to ancient beliefs. Mid-autumn festival has been celebrated in China for at least 3000 years, following an old tradition that the sun must be honoured in spring and the moon in autumn.

Like Easter, mid-autumn festival is linked to the lunar calendar, meaning the dates it is celebrated shift from year to year. This year, it will be celebrated on 30 September. Just as hot cross buns are an allusion to the Passion, so mooncakes allude to the moon goddess.

Taste-wise, mooncakes (or yuč bĭng) do not offer an easy comparison to any Western baked goods. Having evolved over thousands of years into a number of distinct variants, they may consist of an outer made from miraculously short pastry, pastel-toned glutinous rice “skin”, agar jelly or even ice-cream. They are most commonly filled with fudgy lotus seed paste; perhaps textured with emerald shards of ginkgo nuts, melon seeds and sweet jujube; and, most importantly, contain salted duck egg yolks at their hearts.

To those with non-Chinese palates such pairings of flavour and texture can be a little alarming at first. The salted yolks are certainly very salty, strangely firm (though silken) and richly eggy. Rather like first encounters with durian or even kina, this combination can be upsetting and yet beguiling, drawing you back for more.

As they’re so integral to one of the biggest events on the Chinese cultural calendar, there are mooncakes for all budgets and tastes, from the very humble to the lavish and opulent. Common to all mooncakes, though, are the symbolic references to the moon – affected through shape, decoration or through the inclusion of whole duck egg yolks.



Cantonese
The most common form of mooncake and that by which all others tend to be measured. You’ll find a sublime golden syrup and peanut oil pastry, the ubiquitous egg yolks in the centre and various luxurious fillings – most often lotus paste, but occasionally red, white or green bean pastes. Nuts and dried fruit can also be added, while high-end versions may include flecks of gold leaf, chocolate, dried paua and even Chinese sausage.

Cantonese mooncakes are often stamped with a Chinese character or design. Bevan Chuang, from the Auckland Chinese Community Centre, relates the legend that mooncakes were once used to coordinate a revolt against the hated Mongol rulers.

“Secret messages were stamped on to the cakes in what looked like abstract patterns. To read them, you had to cut the cakes up and reassemble them in a particular order... it’s a great story, but I think historians will tell you the designs on mooncakes really started as a way of identifying who made them, back when each village had only one communal oven but several bakers.”

Today, the characters or designs on mooncakes usually state the name of the producer, the filling type and a seasonal slogan, such as “longevity”.

Taiwanese
Not especially common in New Zealand, Taiwanese mooncakes are usually filled with red or mung bean paste rather than lotus, but include the essential egg yolks. In 2010, the Taiwanese Ministry of Health issued a warning to its citizens to limit their mooncake consumption due to growing concerns about annual mooncake-related weight gain.

Snowskin
Rather than pastry, these modern creations are encased in a shell of chewy, glutinous rice dough, very similar to mochi. They are often lurid in colour and elaborately shaped, reminiscent of Thai carved fruit. Snowskin mooncakes are particularly popular in South-East Asia and often include distinctly local fillings, such as durian, pandan and young coconut.

Other variations
Ice-cream mooncakes are often little more than moulded low-fat ice-cream. Available in a range of (often Westernised) flavours, such as coffee and chocolate, they are indicative of a growing disdain for fatty foods among some middle-class Chinese.

Jelly mooncakes with fillings such as taro, konjac and yam paste, are rarely seen in New Zealand.

Finding mooncakes
From around August, mooncakes are available from Asian supermarkets and specialty stores all over New Zealand. Although the vast majority are imported, a few bakers make their own every year, including the Classic Bake House (branches throughout Auckland) and La Couronne Cake Boutique (lacouronne.co.nz).

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