The doorbell rang and I didn’t answer it. It was either UPS, FedEx, or someone trying to sell us solar panel. Already 2:30pm and I hadn’t had lunch, I was feeling hangry while waiting for a pot of soup to reheat. Since the soup wasn’t going to heat up any faster with me looking at it, I took a deep breath to calm down and went to open the door.
Hanging on the door was an unexpected gift from an unexpected friend. Stacy, the co-owner of Shun Feng (my favorite Santa Cruz Chinese restaurant), had brought a generous box of moon cakes. October 5th and bunnies were on the bag and the tin as reminders of one of the most important Chinese and Vietnamese holidays – the Mid-Autumn Harvest Festival, also known as the Moon Festival; 2017 is the Year of the Rabbit, which explains the cheery tin.
Tomorrow is when the Harvest Moon is the biggest and brightest of the year. Moon cakes, compact filled cakes encased in a super thin pliable dough, are traditionally gifted and enjoyed this time of year. They are usually baked and called banh nuong or banh tet Trung Thu in Vietnamese; in Mandarin Chinese, they’re called yue bing. If you’re looking to buy moon cakes, head to a Chinese or Vietnamese market or bakery. You’ll see them stacked on display tables.
Moon cakes are like edible sculptures, traditionally formed in wood molds. I made them for years but have skipped many years. My mom taught me how to make them, and there’s a recipe to make them in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. To go along with that recipe, it’s the most complicated and longest in the book, I made a video of how I form moon cakes.
Each cake is meant to be cut into thin slices to be nibbled on with hot tea. My family always ate our moon cakes by picking up the slices. The box from Stacy included a charming set of three plastic forks and a knife for serving and eating. How civilized! I happen to have a strange obsession about little forks for canapes and fruit. My collection is varied and spans 60+ years of design.
When moon cakes are bad, they’re like yucky old fruitcakes. When moon cakes are good, they are sublime, subtly sweet with a buttery, nutty salted chicken or duck yolk.
Stacy and her family selected moon cakes filled smooth lotus seed paste (one of my favorites!) and two egg yolks each. Double happiness for me because the yolks are like a little prize inside a moon cake. They glow with beauty and provide the savory contrast to the sweet filling and dough.
Asian sweets are weird to people who are unfamiliar with them. But once you delve into their meaning and construction, you realize that there’s a long history and artistry involved. Just consider how the heck you keep the filling and dough in that gorgeous of a shape in the oven! There’s lots of little tricks involved.
Aside from the eating moon cakes, the Mid-Autumn Harvest Festival is a time of reflection. You’re supposed to go outside and gaze at the beautiful moon, to assess all the wonderful things that life has gifted you. You’re supposed to feel gratitude. There are many Moon Festival legends, too, including the one about the man or woman in the moon!
What am I grateful for?
First off, I’m grateful for knowing someone like Stacy, who opened and manages Shun Feng to support her father’s dream of having a restaurant in the United States. They immigrated from China, she studied at UC Santa Cruz, and her father, Baolin Liu, checked out different places to settle in America. He decided that the people and climate of Santa Cruz suited him best. They are kind people who treat me to homey Chinese dishes at the restaurant because I tell them I’d like something more than the regular kung pao chicken (I’ve no problems with a good kung pao but there are many more dishes in the Chinese repertoire). More about Shun Feng and the Liu family is in this San Francisco Chronicle story.
Another thing I’m thankful for is that this year marks the 15th birthday of Viet World Kitchen. I built the site from scratch in 2002 because I wanted a place to share my culinary knowledge. It was years before I had a career as a cookbook author and was told that I had to be on television to land a book deal. (That wasn’t the case, right?!) In 2007, after my first cookbook was released, I changed VWK to a blog format on Typepad (a blogging platform). The site has gone through many transformations, and the latest on WordPress (a much more robust platform than Typepad) is what you’re looking at right now! I’ve been wanting to refresh the site for years and took the plunge to move all 1,000 plus posts and pages to a new platform. Moreover, I did a little redesign.
I had a few near spills during the last seven days, but the upshots include:
- An easy searchable recipe index and archive — When you go to this page (a link in top and bottom page menus!) you can use drop-down menus to see all that’s available. Or, you can search and the posts will pop up. In my old blog, I didn’t have an easy, nifty way to do that.
- Printable recipes – This will be a slow process because I manually do it. I’ve started with popular recipes like this one and this one. From here on in, new recipes will be easy for you to print out. (Mom – I hope you’re now happy!)
A few pre-2009 posts need a refresher. In looking at the archives, I’ve also come across some fabulously useful information that I’d forgotten about; expect me to dust them off! If there’s a broken link, please holler via a comment!
In other words, the Moon Festival is a time to tidy things up, reap the benefits of the past year of hard work, and say “Thanks” to everyone and everything that’s contributed to your good fortune.
Thank you for being part of the VWK community!