Mooncakes

Welcome to Chinese Checkout, a guide to the cooking ingredients, snacks, and desserts in Chinese grocery stores. Occasionally we’ll venture into restaurants, but the main point is to show you what things are, how to use them, and how they came to be.

It’s almost the Mid-Autumn Festival, one of the biggest Chinese holidays. Falling around the autumnal equinox, it’s a celebration of the harvest and a time for visiting family and friends to pray to your ancestors and gaze at the full moon. It’s also time to eat mooncakes.

 

Wing Wah Brand mooncakes

Wing Wah Brand mooncakes.

 

Mooncakes are made in all sorts of ways, but the Cantonese-style lotus seed paste cakes populate most grocery store shelves. I bought a box of Wing Wah Brand cakes from Hong Kong to bring to my friends. After all, they’re meant to be given as gifts and shared.

 

Lotus seed paste mooncake.

Lotus seed paste mooncake.

 

I sampled a larger mooncake that I’d bought for the house. The crust is paper-thin and hard to taste against the creamy, dense lotus seed paste. The paste is much less sweet than what we Americans are used to. There’s just enough sugar to balance the nutty smoothness of the paste. The “moon” inside is a salted duck egg, flaky and savory. As a kid, I only ate the yolk of hard-boiled eggs, so the “moon” appeals to me. Not everyone likes it, though, and not every mooncake has a “moon” inside.

 

“Hundred fruits" Shanghai-style mooncakes.

"Hundred fruits" Shanghai-style mooncakes.

 

I also found Shanghai-style mooncakes at my local store. (Oddly, they are also made in Hong Kong. Guess Hong Kong has the market cornered.) When I asked the woman at checkout about them, she simply said, “Shanghai people like these.” I asked if she liked them. “No,” she smiled.

The Shanghai-style mooncake is flaky, falling apart into a sweet powder in your mouth. Definitely not meant for divvying up. It’s made with peanut oil instead of the more typical lard, but it’s just as delicious and not at all peanuty. I’m not sure the manufacturer was completely truthful about the ingredients, though. The box lists olive kernels, but I could swear those are chopped walnuts in there. As for the orange fruit bits, I’m tempted to say papaya, but they’re so small it’s hard to tell. Still, I like these mystery mooncakes.

 

“Hundred fruits" Shanghai-style mooncakes.

"Hundred fruits" Shanghai-style mooncakes.

 

When you buy mooncakes in tins, you may say a beautiful woman painted on the top. She is Chang’e, the goddess of the moon. Chang’e was once earth-bound, living with her husband, the archer Houyi, who descended with her to the realm of men. Hou’yi shot down the nine extra suns to keep the earth from burning up. As a reward he was given an immortality pill. But Chang’e got to it first, and it caused her to levitate. She flew to the moon, where she lives to this day.

You may also see rabbits hopping along your tin. They recall the Moon Rabbit, also called the Jade Rabbit, who lives in the moon with Chang’e, where he pounds herbs to make the elixir of immortality. You can see the Jade Rabbit in this Wednesday’s full moon.

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9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jules
    Sep 20, 2010 @ 20:25:04

    I’ve always loved how Chinese folktales, including the story of Chang’e, don’t make any damn sense as a real parable to us in the modern sense. I think we have this modern notion of folklore as moral analogy when a lot of ancient Chinese texts (as well as Greek and other traditions) just have all sorts of random plays of supernatural power occurring with very little in the way of free will. More reflective of human perceptions of (non-)agency in older and leaner times, you think?

    PS I also find the Shanghai yuebin gross. I think that makes me a traitor.

    Reply

  2. Raleigh
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 00:12:13

    Wow, I had no idea there were so many varieties of moon cakes! Look very tasty! Happy mid-Autumn festival!

    Reply

    • Anne
      Sep 21, 2010 @ 03:45:09

      Yeah, turns out there are all kinds of regional variations. But the lotus seed paste cakes are the heavyweights here in the States. I wonder if it has anything to do with some of the first immigrants coming from Canton (and even Fujian).

      Reply

  3. Will
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 13:53:44

    Re. the Cantonese-style mooncakes, I think there are also ones that only have red bean paste inside, sans duck egg. Even though the red-bean paste is far too sweet, I still prefer it because the duck egg version makes the cake hard to divvy up, and most mooncakes are simply too large/fattening to eat in one go.

    However, I still like the Cantonese-style more than the Shanghai-style on the same grounds, as its flakiness makes it hard to divide. Since in my family we take a while to polish through a tin—we buy them because we feel obligated/receive them as gifts rather than any particular gastronomic predilection—the cakes get hard over time and become well-nigh impossible to eat, much less divide.

    Reply

  4. John
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 17:22:05

    you forgot to mention how calorie laden these beasts are… almost worse than eating a fried twinkie.

    Reply

  5. John
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 17:24:30

    here is the downlow:

    a mooncake lotus paste with egg yolk which is around 3 inches in diameter has around 790cals & 45g of fats!

    Reply

  6. Wei Wang
    Oct 08, 2010 @ 20:27:20

    Hi. Anne:
    I really enjoyed your blog about Chinese mooncakes. As a resident in Arlington for the past 15 years, I didn’t know that Rockville even has a Chinese store offering Shanghai style “Hundred fruits” mooncakes. I will have to check it out next year. But it is already too late for this year’s Mid Autumn Festival. Do they have the mooncakes with meat fillings as well? 鲜肉月饼 are great holiday treats, best served while still hot. But they are commonly encountered only in Shanghai. I haven’t had a chance to taste it for a long time. Boy! My mouth is already watering as I try to visualize them.

    Reply

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