I debated on posting this today because, like many of my comrades, I was totally last minute in getting my moon cakes for 2013. I got them yesterday. Moon Festival, also known as Mid-Autumn Festival, is today. Even worse, I won’t be giving out my moon cakes to the secret Hawaii Chinese Dinner Society (HICDS) until tonight at a very un-Chinese restaurant in Chinatown: Downbeat Diner.
But whether you enjoy moon cakes today, tomorrow, or the rest of the year, you laowai should know a little more about these Chinese sweets so you can appreciate them in a way that I never did.
The Moon Festival is celebrated in September or October to mark the celebration of the harvest moon, as many people do around the world. During this time, Chinese people buy moon cakes — boxes and boxes and boxes of moon cakes — to give as gifts to family and business associates. The round shape symbolizes completeness and unity, and is a popular symbol for families.
Moon cakes, to me, are kind of like the American fruitcake: They’re dense, sweet, and often sit on the kitchen table for a long time, waiting for people to eat it. When I was a kid, I would eat the duck egg center and leave the rest; there are others who prefer it without the duck egg. My childhood thing with moon cakes is that they’re kind of dry … or they have been, until now.
If you go to Sing Cheong Yuan Bakery in Chinatown, you’ll find the traditional pastry-covered moon cakes, filled with more than 20 different combinations of black sugar, lotus paste, duck eggs, winter melon, coconut, and more. I bought one traditional cake to be, well, traditional, but I made a beeline for the refrigerator, which holds seven different kinds of mochi moon cake (strawberry, melon, mango, taro, sweet potato, green tea, and durian fillings). These are less dry and a little more novel, which I prefer. And these are the ones the HICDS will be tasting tonight.
You can still get them, while they last, at Sing Cheong Yuan today until at least 5:30 p.m. In the meantime, if you are late like me or just want to enjoy moon cakes another time, you can still get them during the year at Sing Cheong Yuan — not in as big quantities, but you can still get them. Best of all, all the moon cakes are made onsite, so they’re fresh.
If you want something really traditional, you can go to China (right!), where my niece Morgen lived for a year. She said they have even more fillings there like chocolate, fig, and dried fish (not recommended). And as you saw in my Taiwan adventures, I bought moon cakes that were actually shaped like the moon there.
“The moon cakes in China are different. You can get them right out of the oven, still warm,” Morgen said. “They were so good, I asked my host family why we don’t eat moon cakes all year round. They said, ‘Because we’d get fat.’” Well, then.
Here’s just a sampling of some of the flavors at Sing Cheong Yuan: