Chinatown in Singapore – street decorations
Mid autumn festival for me represents 2 things, mooncakes and lanterns. It is one of the most romantic celebrations, firstly because it is in honour of the moon Goddess of Immortality and lanterns, lighting up in various forms of flowers, animal shapes, or large lanterns send alight and afloat up in the air, sparkles in the dark of the night all over, like stars.
Buying mooncakes at a chinese confecrtionary stall
It coincides with the autumnal equinox (of the solar calendar), the 15th day of the 8th month of the chinese lunar calendar, when the moon is at her fullest and roundest.
Mooncake festival started like last week culminating on the 22nd Sept 2010 . The restaurant, bakeries and hotels are producing and selling them like hotcakes. These delicious cakes are a delicacy on its own, heavy in calories and popular gifts to family and friends this time of the year. The perfect accompaniment is the chinese tea.
There has been queues everywhere and people snapping them up like there is no tomorrow. These chinese pastries come with various pasty fillings. Today the array is mindboggling too – from traditional ones like lotus seed paste to modern fusiony flavours like chocolate ganache , durian, green tea , ice cream, etc. However, I am rather a purist – when it comes to traditional celebrations I like to stick to traditional versions of the mooncakes. The ones I knew growing up were the piglet biscuits, baked mooncakes with the lotus seed paste and melon seeds , with or without salted duck yolk, or red bean paste or the ultimate decadence – jin hua ham and wu ren, 5 nuts, consisting of walnuts, pumpkin seeds, almonds, sesame, pistachio, macademia, watermelon seeds and winter melon) – it really reminds me of the Italian paneforte.
Jin hua ham and nuts mooncake
Due to the convergence of regional specialities throughout China showing up in our shores, both Malaysia and Singapore – we now can get besides the baked mooncakes, the snow skin (unbaked) or flaky pastry (shanghainese).
So what is a good mooncake? How does one judge? In my humble opinion, it is so individual. The addition of salted duck egg yolk gives it a harmonised balance of salty savoury angle to the otherwise cloying sweetness of the lotus seed paste or red bean paste. Melon seeds give it a nice crunch. Traditionally one judge a good mooncake from the finished look, the imprints should be clear, skin is baked smooth, and golden brown. The skin should not be too thicked, with a slight separation from the filling itself. The filling must have the right consistency, not overly sweet or heavy and yet when one takes a bite, the paste should not be overly sticky or oily but yet holds together in a semi solid form. Have a few and be the judge yourself what you like best! I personally go for mooncakes made from known chinese restaurants or bakeries , hand made and are famed for using good quality ingredients.
As for the legends related to this celebration, there are many versions. A story about an Imperial General Houyi, a very skilled archer, was ordered to shoot 9 suns out of 10, as the earth was heating up. Succeeding he was given a pill for immortality which he hid . Unfortunately his wife Chang ‘ e found it and swallowed the pill, she flew away ( or was banished) to the moon. There, she coughed out the pill. She befriended the Jade Hare on the moon who is still pounding the pill so she could return back to earth. She lives in a palace on the moon, while her husband who made himself a palace on the sun, visits her once a year on the 15th day of the 8th month. Hence you see many mooncake imprints show a lady silhouette on the moon.
Snowskin mooncake – this is rose flavoured with red bean paste filling and melon seeds
Another story is about a revolt overthrowing the Mongul rulers by the Chinese. Secret messages were hidden in the mooncakes and distributed to the chinese inhabitants, to organise a revolt which was eventually successful.
A paper lantern using a thin candle.
As for the lanterns, rather unsure how it came about to be a part of the mooncake festival, either to recreate light on a mid autumn night or representing the 10 suns, or maybe to show Chang’e her way home to earth. Whatever the reason may be, it is a delightful addition to the festival especially for the children and romantics like myself.
And for the mooncake recipe – I don’t have it, my mom does, but she has not made one for a very long time. Truth be told, it is a lot of work , if you intend to make everything on your own, from the lotus seed paste to the pastry. When I do manage to dig her recipe out one day, I will post it on my blog , and if any one of you are game to try it out – let me know how it went.