With the 15th day of the eight lunar month behind us, mooncake season is officially over. Or is it? According to Zhuozhongzhi (酌中志), a book about palace life and traditions in the Ming Dynasty, written eunuch Liu Ruo-yu who had lived under the reign of four different Ming emperors, leftover mooncakes should be kept in a “shaded, cool place” and eaten at the end of the (lunar) year when the family gets together again for end-of-year festivities, to reinforce its meaning as a cake of “reunion” – according to Qing Dynasty writer Tun Li-Ch’en, they’re called reunion cakes (團圓餅).
I’m not sure how these mooncakes wouldn’t go bad, but then again, mooncakes are usually made with a ton of lard and sugar, which probably preserves them for a while. (Although back in the Han Dynasty, mooncakes were once steamed glutinous rice cakes with fillings (糍粑餅), not unlike flattened tangyuan, and celebrated Mid-Autumn as a festival of filial piety (but what Chinese festival isn’t though, LOL) – those floppy things definitely wouldn’t have lasted for long!).
Here in Hong Kong, and in many Chinese communities around the world, mooncake is this thing: golden-brown, baked, with a sweet paste (eg. lotus seed, mung bean, red bean), salted egg yolks, maybe some crushed nuts – but like much of the Chinese food known throughout the world, this is actually a Cantonese-style mooncake, and there are tons of other mooncake styles across China and historical diaspora.
There are Chiuchow- (Chaozhou/Teochew/潮州) style mooncakes with their flaky, spiral layers that can sometimes be deep-fried rather than baked:
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Beijing, where the sources I mentioned up top would have written their books from, has their own styles of mooncake too, and the one below is just one type, with a pale skin (自来白); there’s another one that’s baked till golden (自来红) as well as one that looks like a Cantonese one (提浆) – but the ingredients are similar: lard, sugar, various nuts and sweet pastes as fillings (but usually no egg yolk):
Suzhou-style mooncakes are popular on China’s east coast, including Shanghai, where I encountered my first meat-based mooncake, which looks like this (it’s filled with minced pork):
There are literally dozens – found this cool illustration of various types around China and across Asia:
Illustrated by Lee Xin Li
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Mooncakes these days have evolved into a strange free-for-all in terms of creative licenses – literally anything goes: moon cookies, pork pies, caviar and truffle, the list goes on and gets more outrageous as the years go by (here’s an article documenting some of the more out-there creations this year in Hong Kong).
There’ve been many bouts of mooncake outrage on my part this year because of these “creative” takes, and it made me think – when does creativity become appropriation? Can you appropriate your own culture? I think the answer is yes.
Most festivals are now a heavily commodified, and mooncakes are the Mid-Autumn commodity. Gifting mooncakes used to be about sharing and spreading the joy (that’s why, I think, many are super cloying and designed to be cut and shared), now, they’re status symbols, whether it’s about luxury fashion or being an Instagram sensation. We’ve taken an occasion intended for slowing down to appreciate the fullness of the moon and getting together with loved ones to one that’s about branding and all the other gimmickry that comes with postmodern capitalism.
Cultural repercussions aside, I’m simply offended by how horrible some of these taste. Actually, now that I think about it, these mooncakes probably weren’t made to be eaten – as status symbols, they’re likely now made to be Instagrammed. Then instead of making mooncakes that taste like Play-doh, why not just make them out of Play-doh instead? It would save us the heartache, at least!
Goldthread visits a couple of salted egg yolks factories to see how salted egg yolks are made.
Know a friend who’d like this calorie-dense content?
What I listened to
An excellent short podcast by NPR’s Planet Money about the sham that is plastic recycling, with excellent interviews with ex-plastic industry lobbyists. That little recycling symbol? The lobbyists made it up!
What I ate
Quite a bit of mooncake, naturally, but what stood out this week was another seasonal food – pomelo. I ordered in bulk from Eatism, an IG shop that flies produce in weekly from Taiwan. A friend said she’d had amazing tiny Taiwanese pomelos, and the next day, I saw them available through Eatism. They’re organic and smelled amazing (I kept the peel and put it in the fridge as a freshener), and after some time in the fridge, tasted almost like a healthy version of a 7-Up.
Dishes from a superb potluck including a spam musubis, air-fried brined pork hock, baked meatballs, and an amazingly fluffy, lemony vegan cake from this Nigella Lawson recipe. Definitely going to try making all of these. (What did I bring, you ask? I got Deliveroo – soz for being disappointing).
I went straight from this potluck to an epic meal at VEA, which delivered as always. It’s always interesting to see how the dishes evolve over time – the egg dish is now a delicately pan-fried sunny-side up yolk on a beautiful thick piece of daikon that’s roasted until it’s crunchy and almost meaty on the outside, accompanied by a super rich demi-glace.