Chinese Mooncakes Demystified

Or, The Equal Opportunity Celebrant – Part 2

 

A visit to any Chinatown bakery this time of year will reveal a befuddling assemblage of mooncakes (yue bing) in a seemingly infinite variety of shapes, sizes, ornamentation, and fillings, all begging to be enjoyed in observance of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Also known as the Autumn Moon Festival, this important holiday occurs on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month (around mid-September or early October on the Gregorian calendar) when the moon looms large and bright – the perfect time to celebrate summer’s bounteous harvest. They’re sold either individually or in eye-catching gift boxes or tins since it’s customary to offer gifts of mooncakes to friends and family (or lovers!) for the holiday. Being a curious monkey (2016 is the year of the same), I felt compelled to purchase an assortment of these delicacies in order to learn about their similarities and differences and to shed some light (moonlight, of course) on their intricacies.

The first point to note is that various regions of China have their own distinct versions of mooncakes. A quick survey of the interwebs revealed styles hailing from Beijing, Suzhou, Guangdong (Canton), Chaoshan, Ningbo, Yunnan, and Hong Kong, not to mention Taiwan and Malaysia. They’re distinguished by the types of dough, appearance, and fillings, some sweet and some more savory. In my experience, Chinese bakeries in Manhattan, Brooklyn (Sunset Park), and Queens (Flushing) favor the Cantonese style, but Fujianese mooncakes are easy to find along stoop line stands outside of markets in neighborhoods where there’s a concentration of folks from Fujian.
jinhua-hammoon-cake-mold
You’ll commonly find mooncakes with doughy crusts (golden brown, soft, somewhere between cakey and piecrusty, often with an egg wash sheen) as well as those with white, paper thin flaky layers that betray lard as an important ingredient; chewy glutinous rice skins (these aren’t baked); and gelatinous casings (jelly, agar, or konjak), the most difficult to find in the city. Golden-baked, elegantly decorated Cantonese versions are round (moon shaped, get it?) or square, are fluted around the perimeter, and have been created using molds made of intricately carved wood to provide the ornate design or an inscription describing what’s inside (see photo).

joyful-lotus-seed-pastejoyful-lotus-seed-paste-inside
Fillings among the Cantonese types are dense and sweet and include lotus seed paste, white lotus seed paste, red bean paste, and mung bean paste, sometimes with one or two salted duck egg yolks (representing the harvest moon) snuggled within. In addition, there are five-nut (or -kernel or -seed) versions, packed with chopped peanuts, walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and watermelon seeds as well as a variety made with Jinhua ham, dried winter melon, and other fruits buried among the nuts; its flavor was a little herby, not unlike rosemary, but I couldn’t quite identify it. These last two were particularly tasty. All are about 3 inches wide and 1½ inches high and sell for about $4.50–$6; mini-versions are available as well. A visit to Flushing exhibited all of these as well as some outstanding fruity varieties including pineapple, lychee, and pandan; these can be best described as translucent fruit pastes and are perfect for the novitiate – a gateway mooncake if ever there was one.
five-seed-pastepineapple-lychee-pandan

In another market, I found a white, flaky pastry version, Shanghai style, I believe; the filling was like a very dense cake with a modicum of nuts and fruits providing some contrast and crunch – certainly tasty.

durian-with-bean-paste-snowy-moon-cakeicy-moon-cake-boxes
chocolate-icy-moon-cakechocolate-icy-moon-cake-with-cream-cheesechocolate-pearls-in-pandan-flavored-bean-paste
Then there are trendy versions that hail from Hong Kong all of which are equally accessible and delicious. Think mooncake meets mochi: rather than dough-based and baked, the skins are almost like the sweet Japanese glutinous rice cake, but not quite as chewy. These snowy and icy mooncakes must be kept chilled. The snowy flavors are contemporary: strawberry, mango, orange, pineapple, honeydew, peach, peanut, taro, chestnut, green tea and red bean; one version featured durian flavored sweet bean paste with bits of the fruit and enveloped by a skin of sweet, almost almond paste texture and flavor. Icy mooncakes come two to a box (they’re smaller, about 2 inches by ¾ inch) with imaginative flavors like pandan bean paste with chocolate pearls (tiny crispy, candy bits, crunchy like malted milk balls, but probably puffed rice), dark chocolate bean paste (the skin is like mochi with chocolatey paste on the inside and a piece of dark chocolate or a bit of cream cheese nestled within), durian, mango, blueberry, custard, chestnut, black sesame, strawberry, and cherry. Prices range from $6–$9.50 each or for a box.

Even the Häagen-Dazs in Flushing’s New World Mall was touting sets of ice cream mooncakes!

fujianese-moon-cake-3-stampsfujianese-moon-cake-insidePerhaps the most unusual are the mooncakes found in Fujianese neighborhoods, particularly along East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown. These round behemoths (about 8½ inches in diameter and an inch or so thick) are simple in appearance. Wrapped in a single flaky layer covering a more substantial crust (a mixture of rice and wheat flours) with red food coloring stamps on top to delineate varieties, they are an embarrassment of lard and sugar with the addition of chopped peanuts, dried red dates (jujubes), bits of candied winter melon and other nuts and fruits supported by sesame seed encrusted bottoms. I’m wary about cautioning you that these might be an acquired taste as they are certainly unlike anything you might find in Western cuisine and I don’t want to put you off; some friends liked them immediately, others had to think about it. In any event, the flavors will grow on you regardless of your starting point. These hefty disks exemplify the phrase “a little goes a long way” and a cup of tea nearby helps cut the oiliness. Cost is about $10 each.

I have to admit that I hit a wall in my attempt to decipher the inscriptions on the Fujianese mooncakes. Many bore a sunburst shape and were stamped, once, twice, three times or four. I was hard pressed to taste the difference between the single and double stamped versions; they were the simplest of the lot – sweet, lardy, and a little fruity perhaps. By the same token, the three-stamp and four-stamp versions were similar to each other and boasted the addition of sweet jujubes and other fruits – more interesting and better in my opinion, certainly sweeter because of the jujubes, but I couldn’t tease out the distinction between the two. Alas, there were other stamps as well – words, I suspect – but the color ran so they were undifferentiable to me. I have friends who can handle Mandarin and Cantonese, but not the Fujianese dialect, and none of the vendors had a word of English, so my questions were fruitless (unlike the 4-stamp mooncake). I’m not going to let this go, though, so keep an eye out for an update to this post.

I did, however, cobble together a mini-glossary to help you decipher a few characters on some of the more popular fillings found in Cantonese mooncakes:

月                 moon
月餅             mooncake
白                 white
蓮蓉             lotus seed paste
紅豆             red bean
旦黃             single yolk
雙黃             double yolk
冰                 ice
冰皮             snowy
伍                 five
仁                 nut, seed, kernel, (benevolence)
金華火腿     Jinhua ham
棗                 jujube (red date)

Armed with these keys, you can combine phrases and discover the secrets hiding within. For example:

雙黃白蓮蓉 = double yolk white lotus seed
冰皮月餅 = snowy mooncake

So head to your nearest Chinese bakery and sample some of these autumn delights! If you can pronounce pinyin, say “zhōngqiū kuàilè” (which sounds like jong chew kwai luh). But in any language, here’s wishing you a Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

中秋快乐!

 
 

Specialty Food Association’s Summer 2016 Fancy Food Show

Show FloorTo some, it is America’s largest food and beverage trade show playing host annually to 2,670 US and international exhibitors who this year presented 180,000 specialty foods to over 47,000 industry professional buyers, distributors, brokers, and the media.

To me, it is Xanadu.

And not only because of three days’ worth of opportunities to sample some delicious wares. The Fancy Food Show affords the chance to hob and nob with other professional foodies, see what products and brands are trending and poised to make a breakthrough, and get a sense of what the industry thinks the marketplace is craving. (I lost count of how many products had Krave in the name.)

To clarify, “specialty foods” – as contrasted with staples – encompass cheese (easily the largest category); cured meats; caviar, smoked, and other seafood; baked goods and mixes; candy and chocolates; nuts; condiments including sauces and marinades; oils; snacks; jams and jellies; beverages and more. The show highlights three major areas: a formidable presence of national manufacturers, a panoply of international pavilions proffering provisions from Peru to Pakistan, and a section organized by state populated by artisanal entrepreneurs trying to catch a foothold in the national marketplace. (Incidentally, it would seem that Brooklyn has seceded from New York since they were ensconced in their own area.)

Needless to say, the international food representatives are a major inspiration for my annual hajj to that stately pleasure dome known as the Javits Center (although my unbridled passion for cheese does vie for first place). Case in point, my quest for argan oil. Made from the kernels of the nut encased by the fruit of the argan tree, its flavor is rich and distinctly Moroccan. Want a tip? Use this awesome product in your cooking or even just for dipping bread, perhaps with a sprinkle of dukkah. After chatting up the folks in every booth in the Moroccan subsector, I was able to consummate my crusade upon meeting the delightful and generous folks at TVT Trade Brands, an importer and distributor of spices and more from around the world.

Elegant Cheese 2Elegant Cheese 1Serrano Ham DollBack in the main area, I couldn’t resist snapping a few photos of some over-the-top displays of cheesy elegance along with an example of fun and exciting things you can do with Serrano ham. (Take that, Lady Gaga!)

Pichuberry PackagePichuberriesA booth promoting Pichuberries®, Mojo Tree Farm’s trademarked name for golden berries (aka physalis, husk cherry, cape gooseberry and others – and not to be confused with true gooseberries) provided an example of something relatively new to the marketplace. If you’re near a great farmers’ market, you can find ground cherries in late summer but they’re unlikely to be perfectly ripe (look for orange, not green), and Pichuberries are far more reliable in that regard. The fruits, about the size of a marble, are sweet, tart, and a little earthy – delicious, and a worthy addition to any salad. Mojo Tree Farm provides a number of recipes (like a pico de gallo that looks wonderful) on their website.

Of course, one can easily find the usual suspects like the baked goods wannabes: the brownie that eats like a cookie, the cookie that eats like a brownie, cookies masquerading as muffin tops, donuts masquerading as brownies, and brownie bottoms masquerading as cookies – “the best part of the brownie!” one company boasted.

One artisanal sausage maker bragged about how their product had no casing so there wasn’t that annoying “snap” when you bit into them. Yeesh. Ah well, one man’s meat is another man’s poisson, I guess.

The atmosphere was a little more homespun down in the States level: Virginia peanuts, Vermont maple products, Brooklyn hipster artisanality, you get the idea. Certainly there was a passel of good ol’ boys invitin’ all y’all to come on down and taste what they just whomped up in the basement. Retired gramepaws, bless their hearts, sporting straw farmers’ hats, who instead of traveling opted to sink their entire pension into bottling their secret family BBQ sauce recipe, beckoned to passing attendees as their granddaughters, aspiring Future Spokesmodels of America and dolled up in gingham, offered samples. Gotta love it.

At the end of the day, it’s all about marketing, and that’s the only aspect of the show that saddens me a bit. Not that I have anything against marketing per se. But all of these companies have done tremendous research into what America wants to put in its mouth, and it seems to me that it’s really about what America doesn’t want to put in its mouth. It felt like practically every product crowed about some mix’n’match variation on:

gluten-free, salt-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, trans fat-free, soy-free, egg-free, butter-free, tree-nut free, peanut-free, caffeine-free, no msg, no GMOs, no hormones, no artificial colors or flavors, no preservatives, no additives, no high fructose corn syrup, no cholesterol, high protein, low carb, low fat, low calorie, vegetarian friendly, vegan friendly, paleo friendly, diet friendly, heart friendly, non-irradiated, pastured, macrobiotic, probiotic, antioxidant, raw…handmade, fair trade, A grade, cage-free laid…<catching my breath> and, of course, the ever popular and stupefyingly meaningless All Natural.

We want our handcrafted, small batch comestibles to be organic, sustainable, artisanal, locally-sourced, farmstead, snout-to-tail, farm-to-table, field-to-fork, and even (in the case of chocolate) bean-to-bar.

Eagerly extending trays of samples, exhibitors intoned, “Gluten-free all-natural!” never making it clear what they were offering let alone whether or not it might taste good. I think I saw biodegradably packaged gluten-free natural spring water. Gluten-free water? But I was pretty tired by then.

Don’t get me wrong; I applaud lifestyle choices and would never mock a creed someone holds dear. But sadly, nowhere did I see labels proclaiming ambrosial, appetizing, delectable, delightful, divine, enticing, exquisite, heavenly, luscious, mouthwatering, rich, savory, scrumptious, tasty, tempting, toothsome, yummy, and certainly never delicious. Why can’t we strike a balance?

And again, to be perfectly clear: the show itself is fantastic – a veritable Disneyworld for enthusiastic food professionals.

I just wish America’s relatively new-found romance with food were less about how it might kill us and more about how it might thrill us.

 
 

Boffo Bofe

I received my marching orders for the Panamanian Day Parade in time to beat the band of revelers. The colorful annual procession in Crown Heights stretches along Franklin Avenue north of Eastern Parkway, but I, typically, was drawn to the food vendors clustered south of it along Classon Avenue – a sensible arrangement given the size of the jubilant throng lining the parade route.

Amid the dishes you might expect – pernil, fried fish, oxtail, arroz con pollo, stew chicken, curry chicken, BBQ chicken (you get the idea), and numerous variations on plantains and empanadas – there were a number of Panamanian specialties that caught my eye (as well as my appetite). Pictured below are cow foot soup, bofe, and chicheme. (Click to enlarge.)

Cow Foot SoupBofeChicheme
Cow foot soup is a thick, comforting dish with chunks of corn, potatoes, and assorted other vegetables and herbs that was absolutely delicious. (Don’t let the “cow foot” part put you off. Soup begins with water and bones, right?) It can be found throughout the Caribbean.

On the other hand (foot?) I’ve only found bofe (rhymes with snowday) on Panamanian menus and recipes for it on the web are scarce. Bofe is beef lung. I think the idea of it may be more daunting than the taste itself, which is milder than most offal. There were several renditions of it at the festival, but all were served with fried bread called hojaldre (from the Spanish word hoja meaning leaf) which, in my opinion, is the perfect accompaniment.

Wash it down with chicheme, a creamy, sweet, corn-based beverage enhanced with evaporated or sweetened condensed milk. Redolent of cinnamon and vanilla, it’s served hot and is vaguely reminiscent of Mexican atole.

The Panamanian Day Parade is always held on the Saturday of Columbus Day weekend. If you’ve never tasted Panamanian fare, jump on the bandwagon to next year’s festivities!

 
 

Pom and Circumstance

The annual August celebration of Suriname Day at Roy Wilkins Park in St. Albans, Queens seemed remote – certainly On Beyond Z-Train, not to mention the E and the J – but I had never experienced Surinamese food and the perfect circumstances through which I could explore it prevailed.

Occupying a tiny corner of northeast South America, Suriname was settled by the British but taken over by the Dutch (it’s the official language) in the 17th century. Demographically diverse, its cuisine promised influences from indigenous peoples, East Indians, West Africans, Javanese, Chinese, Brazilians, Portuguese, and Jews, not to mention the Dutch; and since for all intents and purposes it is culturally Caribbean, I anticipated a serious geographical culinary contribution as well. I was not disappointed.

In addition to numerous rice dishes, some of the fare I sampled (see below) included salt fish and spicy chicken gizzard and liver, bakabana (fried plantain with spicy peanut sauce), trie and telo (anchovies and cassava/yuca)…
Saltfish and Spicy Chicken Gizzard and LiverBakabanaAnchovies and Yuca

…and pom.

Pom? I was familiar with the others in one incarnation or another (although certainly cloaked under unfamiliar aliases here) but pom? Hardly obscure at this venue, it seemed that every table was offering their version of the dish.
PomPom 2

Subsequent research revealed that pom is a sine qua non of festive occasions in Suriname, as the expression “without pom there is no birthday” makes abundantly clear. Made from grated pomtayer (the tuber/corm of Xanthosoma sagittifolium) plus chicken and citrus juice (often orange) along with onions, tomatoes, and various seasonings, the dish is baked until it’s GBD (golden brown and delicious).

I took my place in line anticipating my first taste of pom. The flavor was sweet, the texture about what you’d expect from a mashed yam as it coddled the flavorful chunks of chicken buried within. It was wonderful. My fellow food adventurer, having disappeared as I was waiting, returned with another version. It was better than the first. This humble dish was etching itself indelibly on my culinary sense memory. I queued up at another booth now, eager to try a third version. A brief eternity later, it was my turn. Pointing at the tray filled with golden brown deliciousness, I gushed, “One please; I love pom!” fairly swooning.

At that point my buddy stepped up behind me and intoned to the woman behind the table, “He means having tasted it for the first time today, he loves it.”

My cover blown, I confessed, “He’s right. But it was love at first sight. Or first taste actually. Can you dig that?” I asked the vendor.

“Mm-hmm,” she smiled knowingly.

I clutched my styrofoam trays of precious pomish treasure and hurried home to attempt to recreate this wonder. But where would I locate pomtayer? That turned out to be the easy part. Yautía (preferably the red/pink variety), also known as malanga, is the moniker under which I’d find it in this area; one could use taro root in a pinch, but I think that might be straying a bit far from the original. The hard part, it turns out, was unearthing a recipe. Usually bursting with helpful culinary instructions for every dish imaginable (and some not so much), the internet had surprisingly few offerings, each different from the last. The “various seasonings” I referred to above are the key. One used pickles, another rum, yet another called for salt pork; some were Jewish inflected, some Chinese, some Javanese, some Hindu. Like the pom at the festival, I could see that these would all be radically different from each other. Once again, I found myself in my kitchen/lab reverse engineering a recipe relying as much on my taste buds as the web and striving for deliciousness and authenticity. I’m pleased to report that my efforts were rewarded with a dish that met my expectations. As a matter of fact, I was so pleased with it that I’m happy to share it with you.

Leave me a comment, and the recipe is yours.