Saqima: The Chinese Rice Krispie Treat

Eggy, melting and just a touch sweet: that’s the perfect saqima. First made by the Manchu for sacrificial offerings, they brought the pastry south when they conquered China in the 17th century. It became a popular snack food on the streets of late imperial Beijing. Now saqimas are eaten everywhere in the Chinese speaking world, including Rockville, Maryland.

 

Saqima.

Buffalo brand saqima.

 

It may look like a rice krispie treat, but a saqima is actually made with noodles rolled in wheat flour, soaked in egg, then fried and sweetened with sugar crystals or honey. It is a soft, greasy square of goodness. I bought the saqimas studded with raisins, but as you can see there are all kinds of novel flavors, like taro (the purple ones) and green tea (the green). Wikipedia tells me the original deal was made with a Manchurian wild berry known as “dog breast”. It’s probably for the best that that’s been phased out.

 

Taro, green tea, raisin, and plain saqima.

Taro, green tea, raisin, and plain saqima.

 

Sadly, I can’t recommend this Taiwanese Buffalo brand I picked up. The saqima clumped and lost its sweetness after the first bite, unlike the buttery taste I remember. If I find a better brand, I’ll let you know. Better yet, tell me if you have a favorite.

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.