The mid-autumn festival is one of my favorite Asian celebrations because it highlights family, togetherness, and there’s the spectacular moon – the brightest of the year. (Think of Dean Martin crooning, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie . . .”) You’re supposed to take time out to hang out with your family and friends, walk in the romantic moonlit night and nibble on moon cake. Last week, Kathy sent an email about cooking Vietnamese food as a Vietnamese Jewish American and she got me thinking about the importance of observing Jewish Shabbat (day of rest) and taking time to maintain personal rituals. Then I realized that the Mid-Autumn Festival was coming up. It moves around as it follows the lunar calendar so I checked online. This year the festival, popularly known as the Moon Festival, falls on October 3. In Vietnamese, this holiday is called Tet Trung Thu. There is plenty of holiday folklore about what you see in the moon too.
Yikes, I skipped making moon cakes in 2008 because I was busy polishing the Asian Dumplings manuscript. It’s one of my annual rituals and this year, my schedule will be a tight squeeze but I’m determined to make two dozen moon cakes.
What are moon cakes? They’re like the Asian version of fruit cake but encased in a 1/8 inch thin pastry. Beautiful to look at and delicately flavored, moon cakes are one of the greatest Chinese culinary inventions. Most people buy them but my mom taught me how to make them at home. My family’s version (see Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, page 300-305 for the detailed recipe) has a filling of nuts, candied fruit, meat, lime peel and rose petal liquor. Moon cakes are one of the most difficult Asian pastries to make and if I don’t practice, I’ll be out of shape.
A buttery golden salted egg yolk sits at the center of each moon cake as a symbol of the moon. While you can buy salted eggs, I salt the eggs myself, which is what you see pictured above; there's a zip-top bag partially filled with water keeping the eggs submerged in the salted water. Every year, I look up the date for the Moon Festival and count a good 4 weeks backwards to see when I should get the eggs salting. That’s what happened today and they’ll be ready on September 29. Note that 4 weeks is the cycle of the moon. Coincidence or what?
I have photos of how moon cakes are shaped but Rory promises to videotape me so that I can post the live action on this site. If you’re unfamiliar with how moon cakes are made, the process involves firmly whacking a wooden mold several times. Lots of violent drama for a delicate morsel. But they’re worth it, a perfect match for a fragrant cup of tea, and a great way to rest, relax and gaze at the gigantic full moon that’s to be expected on October 3.
Between now and the end of September, I’m making a list of who I’ll gift my moon cakes to. For sure, I’ll mail a few to my mom and take a few to Australia when I go for the Sydney International Food Festival (October 9-11). Luke Nguyen of acclaimed Red Lantern restaurant are doing a Vietnamese cooking demo, and he promises to show me around the Australian Little Saigon enclave in Cabramatta. He’ll get one. Asian food and pastry expert Christopher Tan of Foodfella.com and I scheduled to discuss food blogging so he’ll get one to. The rest are wild cards so stay tuned. For now, I've taken the first step by salting those eggs!
Have any experiences or rituals to share about the Mid-Autumn festival? Do you like to eat moon cakes?