This past weekend I took part in Hong Kong’s Mid-Autumn Festival, one of the top 4 most important holidays in China. The festival is based around lunar worship and full moon watching and is traditionally celebrated together with family members and friends. I personally chose to get out of the city with a few friends and camp out on a beach in Sai Wan in order to really be able to experience the full moon. It turns out many had the same idea as the beach became spotted with tents and locals grilling up fish balls, beef balls and shumai fire-side. The most popular bite of the festival though? Mooncakes. Kind of like pies at Thanksgiving, these treats are shared as gifts between friends, family members, coworkers and even strangers. On the Friday before the holiday there was a mooncake tasting at work and I finally got to try them and to see what all the hype was about. While I appreciate the gesture behind all of the mooncake gifts I have received in the past few days (even at night on the beach from a nearby camper), I respectfully pass on these intense little calorie bombs in the future.
This is a wedge of the tradition mooncake 月餅. A thin layer of slightly oily, though pleasantly flaky dough, reminiscent of a sweet pie shell, wrapped around a thick, extremely dense mass of lotus seed paste and a whole salted duck egg yolk, meant to symbolize a full moon, in the middle. While I found the crumbly crust and thick lotus paste filling quite nice – I am a proud fan of that raw cookie dough, marzipan consistency – the slightly dry, salty and briny preserved egg yolk in the middle was a bit too much for me. It just didn’t seem to harmonize with the nutty sweetness of the lotus seed paste and the texture was a bit too dry to be enjoyed as an egg. Not knowing, at first, that a single mooncake contains around 1000 calories, I had quite a large piece as my first bite (maybe around half of the thing) and spent the rest of the day feeling like there was a cinderblock in my stomach. I guess the way to eat this thing properly is to take a tiny little bite and crumble it apart in your mouth, waiting patiently for flavors to unfold as you do so. Maybe wash it down with some tea so that the thing actually dissolves instead of remaining brick-tight in your stomach.
Snowskin mooncake 冰皮月餅. This one was a bit more tolerable. The crust was made of glutinous rice, almost powdery-smooth on the outside, chewy and soft on the inside, most well known to the western palate, perhaps, as the outer layer of a mochi ball. The filling was a creamy, rich custard tasting of peanuts and a few toasted peanuts were also tossed in to add a crunch. A bite of this is dense enough to choke, getting stuck in the throat like a lump of peanut butter cookie batter would. While the filling is slightly creamier and definitely more pleasant in flavor than the tradition duck egg mooncake, it’s still just as dense and is a bit like a punch in the belly.
Tender-crusted, custard filled mooncake. This may have been my favorite. The exterior was a bit spongy and soft, while the filling was a sickly sweet and slightly floral smelling (honey-infused?) little lump of crumbly, eggy custard very similar in texture to the roasted chestnut puree we often eat in Hungary. Simple and sweet, still very dense, but small enough to actually be consumed in two or three bites without feeling sick for hours afterwards.
I understand that mooncakes are an integral element to one of China’s most important festivals. The history behind them is also pretty cool: Ming revolutionaries used it as a way to spread secret messages in their attempt to overthrow Mongolian rule in the 14th century. They would either stick the notes inside the filling or print elaborate messages into the outer cover of the cake. It is through mooncakes that the revolt of the Han Chinese was coordinated.
I also enjoyed the kind smiles that came along with the mooncakes and the concept of sharing an important part of one’s culture with a foreigner. Just don’t make me eat a whole one….
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