Sunday, September 11, 2011 has been a solemn occasion full of reflection on the past and future. During the past week, my husband and I watched several TV programs and read magazine and newspaper articles about the tragic events that happened a decade ago. Perhaps we overloaded ourselves with 9/11 but today, on the actual anniversary date of the attacks, I decided to switch gears to focus on tomorrow, Monday, September 12, 2011.
It’s going to be the Mid-Autumn Festival (Tet Trung Thu in Vietnamese, Zhong Qiu Jie in Mandarin). It’s also called the Moon Festival because the moon shines never fails to shine super big and bright. Referring to the festival legends behind the holiday, my mom once remarked, “It’s this time of the year that you can see the woman in the moon.” So tonight, I went into the backyard and looked up to see this moon:
The Mid-Autumn Festival is a harvest festival, a time for giving thanks for the plenty of the year that has past. We no longer lead agricultural lives but we can still pause to feel grateful for life’s bounty.
The festival is one of the most important holidays of its kind among those of Chinese, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese descent. People gather with friends and family to hang out and eat. I remember being in Hong Kong one year strolling along the Kowloon side of the harbor among throngs of people out to gaze at the moon. Kids carried colorful cellophane and wood lanterns to imitate the moon, reminding me of when I was a child in Vietnam.
Foodwise, at the center of the festival are moon cakes, called banh nuong/banh Trung Thu in Vietnamese and yue bing in Mandarin. The small cakes have a sweet or savory-sweet filling encased by a very thin sheath of dough.
I love them because I grew up on wonderful homemade moon cakes. I have learned to prepare them on my own but this year, I had a few in the freezer (pictured at the top; “w/o trung” means we ran out of egg yolks!). My mom made them last year and gave me a few. They seem to last indefinitely when kept frozen. Our family’s preferred moon cakes are filled with a finely diced mixture of sweetmeats, roast pork, nuts, sesame seed, and fresh lime leaf. At the center is a single salted egg yolk to evoke the moon. A touch of rose petal sorghum liquor (mei kwei lu chiu) in the filling makes things extra fragrant. Our homemade moon cakes are laborious to make so we savor tiny pieces with sips of fragrant tea or the rose petal liquor.
Here is one of my mom’s homemade moon cakes, unwrapped and thawing. I like to keep it in an airtight container so that it remains moist.
From this one cake that measures about 3 1/2 inches across and 1 1/4 inches tall, I can cut 8 to 12 wedges. My mom can cut hers into 16 but she’s a maniac. The point is that we really love our moon cakes and a little goes a long way.
But there are many people who hate moon cakes. I can certainly understand why as most commercially made moon cakes are lead-like and too sweet. Twelve months ago, when I was in China, my friends and I sampled moon cakes twice and all I can say is, this: A single small piece can stay with you for hours!
How can you avoid moon cakes? At the Walmart in Beijing and a wet market in Chengdu, food stylist Karen Shinto and I saw mountains of moon cakes on display for the holiday. Here is a sample from Beijing’s Walmart:
My dad just emailed a Los Angeles Times dispatch from China, where yue bing has become a dreaded holiday gift, on par with the American fruitcake. (But I like fruitcake and make a Vietnamese fruitcake that’s flavored a bit like my favorite moon cake!) The Chinese sweet has been subject to a character assassination – people see it as a fattening, wasteful expensive gift, and bad tasting food.
Moon cakes have also become a tax issue as the Chinese tax bureau is forcing employees to pay income tax on cakes that they receive from their companies. How’s that for deterrence?
The LA Times article quotes one man who comments, “As the Western saying goes, nothing is certain but death and taxes. I feel very uncomfortable about the ‘mooncake [SIC] tax.’” So moon cakes are perceived as bad as taxes.
On the other hand, modern moon cakes, such as the Haagen-Dazs ice cream filled ones, sell like hot cakes! (Haagen-Dazs is owned by General Mills and their ice cream moon cakes represent a huge business opportunity. Trader Joe’s used to carry a similar product in their frozen section and it was okay, not great.) Starbucks has even gotten into the moon cake business in China.
What do you think of moon cakes? Love them or hate them? Is there a kind or filling that you enjoy? What is your source for them?
Related moon cake links:
- How to make moon cakes (video that goes with my recipe from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen)
- Tips on buying and making moon cakes
- Vietnamese fruitcake recipe
- Mid-Autumn Festival history, legend, and tradition
- General Mills’ golden opportunity: China’s moon cake market (TwinCities.com/Pioneer Press)