A full moon means different things for different people. In the West, there are some who link full moons to spikes in crime, suicide, mental illness, disasters, accidents, birthrates, fertility and werewolves. Vietnamese, like their Chinese brethren, look forward to next Tuesday's gigantic full moon — the biggest and brightest of the year — as a marker of Mid-Autumn Festival, one of the most important holidays of the year.
Instead of crime sprees, we go on shopping sprees. (Yes, we do love and know how to shop!) At Vietnamese and Chinese markets and bakeries, people are on mad hunts for a number of holiday 'must haves,' one of which are moon cakes that are sold in boxed sets of four. At first look, the little beauties resemble ceramic objects. However, cut into one and you'll see that the very thin, embossed dough encases a filling that varies from smooth lotus seed to red bean paste, green tea, to my favorite — a mixed nut, sweetmeat and meat filling. Regardless of filling, in the center there's a yellow-orange egg yolk (duck or chicken egg) that serves as a fitting reminder of the moon. You may think this gross, but combining the sweet and savory lends extra complexity to foods and is a marker of many Asian sweets.
Though the Mid-Autumn Festival (called Tet Trung Thu in Vietnamese) has been celebrated for a thousands of years in China, the practice of gifting and eating moon cakes during this holiday supposedly date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1280 AD – 1368 AD), when secret notes stuck into moon cakes were sent around to get the Han Chinese to rise up against the Mongols who controlled their country at that time. (More on the legend . . . ) The Vietnamese fought off Mongolian invaders twice so it's no surprise that moon cakes are appreciated in Vietnam too. Of course, a millennium of Chinese domination impacted Vietnamese culture quite a bit.
Making Moon Cakes
Most people buy their moon cakes (called banh Trung Thu or banh nuong in Vietnamese) but yours truly learned to make them at home. Asian shoppers may be crazily selecting moon cakes but my over-achieving mother would go into a frenzy making her annual mega batch of 6 dozen (72!) cakes. My father was her collaborator and was skilled at cutting up the lime leaf into tiny hair-like strands.
I used to get moon cakes from Mom but she 'hung up her gloves' three years ago and handed her well-worn wooden molds over to me. Since then, making moon cakes has become one of my annual culinary rituals. Every summer since then, I’ve looked at my calendar and checked online to see when Tet Trung Thu is. Then I work backwards to prepare the moon cakes. First and foremost is salting the eggs, which take a good month. From there on in, it’s a matter of getting organized, assembling and prepping the ingredients, and getting ready for the actual day of making moon cakes. It's a lengthy commitment but well worth the effort.
Whether or not you make your own or buy moon cakes at the store, appreciate the process it takes to produce these ancient treats. The most thrilling and scary part of making the cakes is whacking them in the wooden molds. It’s a precise order and there’s no pussy footing. The whacking is done with gentle confidence, lest the cake pop out of the mold entirely. Catching the cake at the end is always satisfying. (In 2009, I posted a YouTube video on making moon cakes.)
If you're wondering, no I don't make six dozen each time. A dozen is good enough for me.
Buying and Eating Moon Cakes
When a moon cake is good, it’s wonderfully chewy with a delicate filling that's aromatic and flavorful, a perfect compliment to hot, fragrant tea like jasmine. When a moon cake is bad, aack (!), it's heavy and leaden, and weighs you down after just a few morsels. I suppose it's like a poorly crafted American fruitcake that gets offered to guests who politely demure.
So avoid ones that look heavy, oily or worse, are leaking oil. Ask when they were made to ensure freshness. Also pay mid to high-level prices to get good ones.
Moon cakes are not meant to be chomped on. Each one is shared because it is considered a precious and special once-a-year treat. People enjoy them as small cut wedges with hot tea. The idea is that you nibble, sip and admire the moon. One cake offers four generous servings or 6 to 8 moderate servings. Use a sharp knife and the scalloped edges as your cutting guide.
If tea isn't your thing, here's my tip: Enjoy moon cake with sips of Mei Kwei Lu Chiu — rose-petal sorghum liquor. It's sold at Chinese markets.