WHAT ARE MOONCAKES (月餅)?
During the Free Walking Tours that I run in Central, Hong Kong (for more info on this, please visit Humidwithachanceoffishballs.com), I have been bombarded (that might be a too powerful word but you get what I mean) in the month of August and September with questions regarding what are those round things advertised on every billboard in the MTRs and around Hong Kong.
Those my friends are called mooncakes and they are consumed during Mid Autumn Festival. One major custom of Mid Autumn is that we give mooncakes to friends and family and we also eat mooncakes under the full moon on the day of Mid Autumn Festival. Mid Autumn Festival is all about the worship of the moon, and we love cake, so mooncake it is! So what’s inside a mooncake?
THE TOP 5 COMMON VARIETIES OF MOONCAKE
If we were to go through all the different varieties of mooncake then we would be here forever. This is because mooncakes are quite expensive; henceforth, the sale of mooncake is equivalent to Christmas sales for a Western retailer – it’s one of their cash cow seasons. In order to compete and to cater to Hong Kong’s love of trying different things, every restaurant and bakery has tried to be creative to grab mooncake marketshare. You are not meant to consume a mooncake by yourself, it is for sharing. Usually, the mooncake is cut into wedges and then it is accompanied by hot tea to wash the mooncake down.
For the sake of the length of this post, I will talk about the most traditional mooncake and then the next top 4 common mooncake varieties that you will find.
ONE. TRADITIONAL FILLING LOTUS SEED PASTE (蓮蓉).
These are the ones that I grew up with in Canada before the whole world went fusion crazy. They’re about 10 cm diameter and 3-5 cm thick (or at least that is what Wikipedia says, but I do concur with that statement). The inside of a mooncake is made with a lotus seed paste (which is quite sweet) and will contain a savoury yolk from a salted duck egg. You may be turned off by the thought of a yolk in your sweet mooncake, but it’s literally the same concept as salted caramel and the yolk is the main show of the mooncake. So much so that some mooncakes will contain 2-4 yolks so each mooncake wedge will have a little yolk. Share the yolk love right? All of this is surrounded by a thing (2-3mm) crust to finish everything off.
TWO. CUSTARD FILLING (奶黃).
This one is probably no surprise since Hong Kong people love egg custard (think egg tarts and liquid egg custard buns). If you’re wondering what those are, please see the dimsum guide here). This is also an egg custard filling inside the mooncake and finished off with an the salty egg yolk in the centre.
THREE. NUTS FILLING (五仁).
Nutty. This filling will give a different texture to the mooncake as it has 5 different types of nuts and seeds distributed in it. I’ve also seen it touted as the healthier version since it contains nuts and nuts are healthy for you, right?
FOUR. SNOWY SKIN (冰皮).
This one is relatively new, compared to the traditional ones of course. People thought the traditional mooncakes were too oily, too fatty, too sweet and too filling. So the result? Snowy skin mooncakes. These mooncakes use a mochi wrapping and encased inside the fillings are of a fruity variety. The mochi layer is frozen so this mooncake is meant frozen and consumed cold. Think of this as the sorbet version of mooncake. This version has seen a rapid rise to the top.
FIVE. LOW SUGAR (低糖).
Mooncakes are very heavy, sweet and oily. But it’s tradition to eat them during Mid Autumn Festival and traditions are especially important to elders. So what happens? There is a lower sugar version so it’s not as bad for you. This lower sugar version is for the traditional mooncake variety as per above.
THERE’S AN ART TO GIFTING MOONCAKES
Okay, so not so much as an art, but there is etiquette in gifting mooncakes. As you may be aware, “to save face” is important in Chinese culture, and the brand of mooncake that you gift is very important in maintaining “face” and that you don’t lose “face”. Of course, if it’s a family affair and you gift it to each other, it’s not as important to consider the brand of mooncake and it’s more of the taste. On the other hand, if you’re gifting it to your future mother/father in-law or to your boss superior, then make sure the brand is impressive enough.
If you’re in Hong Kong or you’re just interested in how much mooncakes can go for, you can visit Timeout HK’s post here. You could be paying $680HKD ($100 USD) for 4 mooncakes (1 giftbox).
I WANT TO TRY MOONCAKES!
Curious and you want to try but you don’t want to spend a crap load on something that you may not like? If you’re in Hong Kong, I recommend picking some up at Maxim, or Kee Wah, which is literally at every corner of Hong Kong.
MAKE YOUR OWN SAVOURY MOONCAKES
But you know what you can do that’s even cooler? You can make your own! The sweet traditional kind is quite difficult to make and to acquire all the ingredients needed; however in certain parts of China, such as Suzhou, there are savoury mooncakes. My good friend over at sweetrehab.ca has a recipe for Suzhou Savoury Mooncakes, read it here. And while I haven’t tasted them, but if they look as good as they taste, then it will be amazing! And also, all the cooking knowledge I’ve acquired over the years, it was either from her, or Gordon Ramsay, so yes, I hold her in the same regard as Gordon Ramsey (she’s just as bouncy and fast in the kitchen too…).
Interested in the origins of mooncake? How it came to? That’s the next post. Stay tuned. By the way, the response to the Mid Autumn Festival Series has been so positive – have you checked out the previous posts yet? Start with the first one in the series, Mid Autumn Festival and everything you need to know here.