Chinese Mooncakes Demystified

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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. Since I pursue culinary details doggedly (2018 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. Most bore a number of red sunburst shaped identifiers 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 had run 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.

Update as promised: Never one to be satisfied with “…and the rest” (as the theme from television’s Gilligan’s Island once crooned – but only for the first season), I had no choice but to return to East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown where I had first tapped into the motherlode of Fujianese mooncakes.

On that visit, I had spotted one that displayed somewhat illegible writing rather than a mini-constellation of stamps but I had already purchased a surfeit of mooncakes that day and decided that I didn’t really need to buy one of each. Silly me; I should know better by now. So since that particular mooncake was eating at me (instead of the other way around), I hazarded $12 to try and solve the mystery.

This time the writing on the mystery mooncake was clear, but I’m still unsure about what it said. I see the character for “plus” over the one for “work”; if they were next to each other, it would mean “processing” (in addition to lots of other translations). In any event, it’s by far the best of any of that ilk that I’ve tried because of the ample addition of black sesame seeds and a plentitude of peanuts, so if you encounter it, that’s the one to get.

I’ve cobbled 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!

中秋节快乐!

 
 

Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival – 2018

Instagram Post 9/21/2018

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A visit to any Chinatown bakery this time of year will reveal a spectacular assemblage of mooncakes (月餅, 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, celebrated this year on September 24th. Here are two pandan mooncakes, one with preserved egg yolk and a mini version without, from Fay Da Bakery at 83 Mott Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

To learn more about the holiday and these delicious treats, please check out my Chinese Mooncakes Demystified post detailing their similarities and differences in an attempt to shed some light (moonlight, of course) on their intricacies. Link in profile.

中秋节快乐!
 
 

Chuan Tian Xia – Pork with Garlic Sauce

Instagram Post 9/20/2018

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Sichuan restaurants are rare in Brooklyn’s Chinatown and Chuan Tian Xia at 5502 7th Ave is the newest in Sunset Park. First in a series, here’s an attractive presentation of Pork with Garlic Sauce; cucumber slabs provided the foundation for this creative bit of architecture.
 
 

The Case for Kholodets

Instagram Post 9/19/2018

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When I was a kid my mother would stash a can of Campbell’s consommé in the refrigerator until its contents congealed – her attempt at Cordon Bleu cookery. This actionable offense was my unfortunate introduction to aspic. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that aspic could be delicious.

This is kholodets (холодец), a savory meat aspic popular in Russian and Eastern European cuisines. Chilled meat stock gels naturally because of its high collagen content although gelatin is sometimes added to double down on the texture. Formerly a wintertime addition to the menu, contemporary refrigeration has made kholodets a year round treat.

I couldn’t resist backlighting this example that’s mostly chicken with a clandestine carrot slice or two set into aspic. Its appetizing flavor is anything but neutral; neutral gelatin would be gross, right? If you think of it as “meat jello” or some kind of weird delicacy, you probably won’t like it; I suggest approaching it with an open mind (and an open mouth) and try to appreciate it for what it is – in this case, cold chicken in its perfectly seasoned jus – rather than what it’s “sort of like”.
 
 

Purple Dough Cookies

Instagram Post 9/18/2018

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Purple Dough is the name, but green dough is in evidence as well. Located at 38-05 69th St in Woodside, Queens, this new bakery has a Filipino perspective on creative custom baked goods. Shown here are ube and coconut-pandan cookies: soft, chewy and sweet, they were the most modest items in the case and were absolutely delicious.
 
 

Vietnamese Pandan Cake

Instagram Post 9/14/2018

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In addition to the assortment of bánh mì you’d expect, Paris Sandwiches at 213 Grand St in Manhattan’s Chinatown sells a modest selection of components for DIY construction so you can roll your own, as it were, including freshly made baguettes, pickled daikon-carrot salad, and a few Vietnamese processed meats. They also carry an assortment of grab-n-go items such as spring rolls, desserts and the like, and baked goods like this Vietnamese Pandan Cake, Bánh Bò Nướng, sometimes called Honeycomb Cake. Its characteristic texture is the key to its appeal; very much like Indonesian martabak manis but not confection filled, this light, sweet treat is a little spongy, a little chewy, and sort of like a crumpet that went missing somewhere in Southeast Asia.
 
 

Grenada, Carriacou, and Petite Martinique Day

Instagram Post 9/13/2018

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The annual event celebrating the culture of Grenada, Carriacou, and Petite Martinique took place on August 26, 2018 at St. Andrew’s Playground in Brooklyn, NY. The food of the Caribbean state is what drew me in, of course, and I had set my sights on “Oil Down”, Grenada’s national dish, a stew with as many variations as there are chefs who make it. Chicken, salted meat, and salted fish all variously factor in, and expect to find dumplings, breadfruit, plantain, yams, corn and other veggies as well, but the essential common ingredient is coconut milk that suffuses everything with an indescribable richness. It’s all cooked down until only the coconut oil remains at the bottom of the pot, hence the name. The greens adorning the top are callaloo, flavorful taro leaves, a traditional component of the dish.

[Photo #2] The sign at a nearby vendor read “manicou”; if you’re concerned that manicou might be some strange sort of foodstuff, don’t worry. It’s just their word for possum. 😉

But seriously, if you’ve never tried it, it’s worth doing once. As with any kind of meat, the taste varies from one muscle to another, and this recipe was well-sauced making it difficult to disentangle the piquant flavors of the gravy and the meat itself, so it defies description; suffice it to say it was unctuous. And it didn’t taste like chicken.
 
 

Accra Restaurant – Part 5

Instagram Post 9/12/2018

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The last photoset from our recent amazing dinner at Accra Restaurant, 2065 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd in Harlem – until I go back for more, that is!

[1] Jollof Rice with Chicken. And a hard-boiled egg. Accra’s jollof rice, the widely celebrated and beloved tomato-based West African triumph and a source of both pride and dispute among African nations as to whose version is best, was delicious as was the chicken.
[2] Pounded Yam Fufu and Okra. This time, the fufu is yam rather than cassava; different but equally tasty. The okra soup is delicious although mucilaginous – an acquired taste, or perhaps an acquired texture. Generally my advice to those who are new to okra soup is to try to think past the consistency and just focus on the wonderful flavor!
[3] Wakey (you might see waakye) with Fried Whiting and Gari. Waakye is Ghana’s culinary claim to fame; similar to West Indian rice and peas, it’s made with rice and black eyed peas or cowpeas. Gari is dried, ground cassava, a little like Brazilian manioc, but unique. And tasty fried whiting – what’s not to like?!

I’ll post the detailed story about our incredible experience as well as a roundup of everything we ate soon.
 
 

Reminder: Our Ethnojunket to Brooklyn’s Little Odessa is Now Boarding!

There’s a new ethnojunket scheduled for Saturday, September 15, 2018 in which we’ll sample the delights of Russian and Former Soviet Union cuisine along Brighton Beach Avenue in Brooklyn’s Little Odessa. The cost is $70 per person (cash only, please) and includes a veritable cornucopia of food so bring your appetite! You won’t leave hungry, and you will leave happy! Here’s an example from our last tour.

Tula Pryaniki (тульский пряник) are sweet honey cakes characterized by a raised imprint on top – in this case тульский identifying Tula, the city in Russia from which they hail, and its coat of arms – covered with a sugary glaze to bring out the image. I’ll let the packaging speak for itself:

лакомка – the brand name, “Gourmet”
с фруктовой начинкой – “with fruit filling”, in this case apple and apricot
вкусный, сытный – “delicious, satisfying”
ароматный – “flavorful”
содержит мёд – “contains honey”

What more can I say? For more information and to sign up for Saturday’s ethnojunket, send me a note in the “Leave a Reply” section below (or write to me directly at rich[at]ethnojunkie[dot]com).

(And remember, subscribing to ethnojunkie.com to receive updates about the latest posts and upcoming tours is a piece of cake. Or easy as pie, perhaps. Just use the Subscribe button on any page!)
 
 

Accra Restaurant – Part 4

Instagram Post 9/10/2018

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But wait! There’s more! More photos from our recent incredible dinner at Accra Restaurant, 2065 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd in Harlem, that is. Continuing the cavalcade of food we loved….

[1] Eba with Egushi. So many fufus, so little time, and I admit to liking them all. In contrast to smooth, pounded cassava fufu, firmer eba has tiny flecks of gari (dried grated cassava) in it and is a little tart or sour tasting. Perfect with egushi (you might see egusi), a delicious soup made from ground melon/pumpkin/squash/gourd seeds.
[2] Banku with Baked Tilapia. Banku is fermented corn or corn + cassava dough, a little sticky, and is a typical partner for baked tilapia and other fish dishes.

More to come from Accra Restaurant….
 
 

Ethnojunket to Brooklyn’s Little Odessa Now Boarding!

There’s a new ethnojunket on the horizon scheduled for Saturday, September 15, 2018 where we’ll sample the delights of Russian and Former Soviet Union cuisine along Brighton Beach Avenue. We’ll share Georgian cheese bread as well as Turkish and Russian sweets and treats along with amazing dumplings, authentic ethnic dishes, and so much more. The cost is $70 per person (cash only, please) and includes a veritable cornucopia of food so bring your appetite! You won’t leave hungry, and you will leave happy!

The photos below show a few of the delicacies we’ll sample. And for a sneak preview of just one part of the tour, check out my post about the amazing Gourmanoff. Is it a market or a theater? Join me and see for yourself!

For more information and to sign up, send me a note in the “Leave a Reply” section below (or write to me directly at rich[at]ethnojunkie[dot]com).

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