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Sunday, September 11, 2005

Chinese Moon Festival

In the hustle bustle of Sydney's Chinatown, it's mooncake fever. Towers of metallic red decorative tins are huddled over by mothers and grandmothers as they compare prices, brands and the number of egg yolks.

What is mooncake? Why the fuss?

Next Sunday, 18 September, is the peak of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, a time when farmers traditionally celebrated their summer harvest on the day when the moon was believed to be at its fullest and brightest. This is the second-biggest holiday for Chinese (after Chinese New Year) and the fervour for decadent sweets is at its highest.

[Image Source]

Mooncakes, traditionally exchanged between families much like gifts at Christmas, are rich, sweet and expensive.

They can be savoury with mixed nuts, candied melon and sesame seeds (as a kid I hated them and I still can't get into their tongue-coating richness);

Or they can be sweet, filled with a sweet paste of lotus, mung bean, red bean, black bean or yellow bean.

An individual mooncake will cost you anywhere from $5-$10 depending on which company made it and yes, the yolk factor.

The full moon is represented by the salted preserved duck's egg in the centre, a strange sensation for the newcomer, but one which helps balance out the rich sweetness of the dessert.

The unique egg centre is also credited with enabling the overthrow of Mongol rulers during the Yuan dynasty. Aware that Mongols did not eat mooncakes, instructions for the rebellion were planted inside the mooncake resulting in a successful overthrow and the establishment of the Ming dynasty. How's that for ingenious eating?

The Rolls-Royce of mooncakes contains not one, not two, not three, but four egg yolks, representing the four phases of the moon as well as providing twice your daily calorific allowances.

Newbies are advised though, that mooncakes are meant to be shared. A mooncake is usually cut into quarters--or eighths--and nibbled on delicately with a cup of tea. There is an oft-told story around our quarters of someone receiving a mooncake during festival time. "Did you like it?" they were asked. "Oh it was delicious, but it was quite rich, I could only eat 3/4 of it," they said matter-of-factly as our hands reached for the number of the heart-attack-hotline.

There are yolkless ones as well, which are usually purchased for kids. And recently there's been an upsurge in new variants of the traditional baked mooncake. When I was in Hong Kong last year I was amazed to see white chocolate and chocolate brownie mooncakes from Mrs Fields. That's as bad as chocolate chip Easter buns! Just plain wrong! =) They tasted ok--much like a cross between a brownie and fudge, but at those prices... well it's just silly.

Snowskin mooncakes are another recent phenomena. Made with a glutinous rice skin (snow skin) and not requiring baking, the Raffles Hotel, Singapore is credited with starting the craze with their release of a champagne truffle snowskin mooncake in 1994. Yes, this is how seriously Asians take their mooncake!

I hadn't tried snowskin mooncakes before. My interest had been piqued when Pinkcocoa mentioned taro mooncakes at our recent yumcha, something I hadn't heard or seen before.

AG likes to be in the gastronomic know, so my final chosen gastronomic research subjects were a taro and a green tea mooncake, both purchased from Emperor's Garden in Chinatown ($7 for a large one, $3 for a small one). They were both sitting in the chilled cake window just as Pinkcocoa promised, a sight I had never noticed before during Festival time (shame, shame).

The taro mooncake was a pretty lavendar colour and cutting a wedge revealed a golden orb within. Taste-wise, the inside was very taro-y! Which was good because, as you all know, I love taro.

The green tea mooncake looked like green tea and tasted like green tea. On one hand it was delicious because it was so familiar. But on the other, it was not as intriguing or exciting as the taro.

Because neither are baked, their texture is softer, more crumbly and a little less greasy than their sweet baked counterparts. The skin is also very thin and denies the childhood pleasure of nibbling off the crust first, before eating the sweet paste within.

Snowskin mooncakes are also more delicate in life. They require refrigeration and last for about 4-10 days.
Baked mooncakes, however, will keep for about three months.

But apparently these "healthier" mooncakes are all the rage amongst the weight-conscious Westernised young. There are ones made of yoghurt, jelly and even fat-free ice cream.

Call me a traditionalist, but I'm sticking with the original.

If you're keen, you can try making your mooncakes by using the recipe links below:
Traditional baked red bean mooncake
Green tea snowskin mooncake
Lotus paste snowkin mooncake
Mixed nuts mooncake

Happy Moon Festival!

Emperor's Garden Bakery
Dixon Street (near corner of Hay Street), Haymarket, Sydney
Tel: 02 9211 2135

Related GrabYourFork posts:
Cabramatta Moon Festival 2005
12 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Anonymous on 9/11/2005 11:46:00 pm


  • At 9/12/2005 1:30 pm, Blogger Nic said…

    Wow. I never knew that much about mooncakes before, A.G. In fact, I've only ever had a few mooncakes, but the snowskin ones sound delightful.

  • At 9/12/2005 2:53 pm, Blogger deborah said…

    Great write up. I wonder if I can get some mooncakes without the yolk...

  • At 9/12/2005 5:58 pm, Blogger 2-minute Noodle Cook said…

    Thanks for the great info on mooncakes. I've been dying to try Anthony's red bean ravioli and the snow skin mooncakes sound like a wonderful alternative. What is that flour for the pastry??

  • At 9/12/2005 8:40 pm, Blogger boo_licious said…

    *Clap! Clap!* Great write up on mooncakes, AG. The taro snowskin mooncake looks good. Usually the taro ones are the Teochew kind and they make it with some flaky pastry.

    There are so many new types of mooncakes nowadays, I just read one article on Spore ones, they have cempedak (a local fruit which can be quite pungent) and wasabi ones! This year in Malaysia, the trend seems to be coffee, forest berries and even dragonfruit ones.

  • At 9/12/2005 9:14 pm, Blogger Reid said…

    Hi AG,

    Funny how you all celebrate these festivals with such passion and many of the Chinese here rarely bat an eyelid. I've never seen so many varieties of mooncake before, but since the festival is coming, I think I'll check out Chinatown to see what's on offer.

  • At 9/12/2005 11:55 pm, Blogger Cat said…

    these mooncakes sound quite fascinating, i may have to make a trip to A'dam to see if i can find anything like that, im very curious about the taste. the purple one -snowskin?- is very pretty

  • At 9/13/2005 2:05 pm, Blogger pinkcocoa said…

    Ohh I still havent gotten some snowskin mooncake for myself this year! Apparently there are cheese mooncake too, along with sharkfin mooncakes and swallow nest mooncake in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

  • At 9/13/2005 6:19 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    yum the taro one realli does look tasty! id be interested if someone did a durian mooncake...

  • At 9/13/2005 10:10 pm, Blogger FooDcrazEE said…

    I was about to blog the same thing. oNly difference is blogging how the machine makes mooncake.

    Great write there. Guess i'm gonna let it go or maybe i'll blog them later. lolz

  • At 9/14/2005 1:15 pm, Blogger Joycelyn said…

    hi ag, fabulously evocative post, as always...i must agree with you; call me old-fashioned, but i am not crazy about those new fangled brownie, truffle and what-have-you flavours...give me lotus paste and salted duck egg anyday...

  • At 9/14/2005 4:25 pm, Blogger Nini said…

    Thank you for your wonderful post about mooncake! I agree with you about preferring the traditional mooncake over the modern low-fat ones. It's the same with what they are doing to hao pya, making it cholesterol free by using vegetable shortening instead of the traditional lard and stuffing it with fillings like chocolate and ube - although I must admit the ube hao pya is very tasty :) Luckily alot of bakeries are still holding out. Thanks again for the very informative post!

  • At 9/22/2006 2:30 am, Blogger An said…

    Thanks to your post I was able to check out some mooncakes on sale. Unfortunately the shop you recommended has the highest price, in 2006 - some are up to A$10 each.

    There are some other bakeries along Chinatown - one slightly more hidden up the road is just A$8.50 the regular sized, traditional mooncakes.

    Also in the Sussex Street (The 'real' china town, as my friend puts it), there's a bakery that sells the two leading brands of traditional mooncakes, in their 4-pack boxes, but they work out cheaper (I think around A$5-6) per regular mooncake. This store is near Gelatissimo.

    This year's Mid-Autumn Festival is on October 6th. So better get your mooncakes quick, or they WILL run out!


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