China Diary - Part 7

Suzhou celebrates the Moon Festival.

September 20, 2006

In keeping with Mark's and my policy of open-mindedness and adventure during our stay in Suzhou, we decided to taste a moon cake on the morning of Thursday, Sept. 21, 2006. Some people climb mountains or scuba dive or hike through Amazonian jungles. We taste foreign foods. It requires little equipment, zero to minimal monetary investment, and no time off from work. We quickly reached consensus about the taste of a moon cake: YUCK! To be fair, however, I must add that we didn't like the particular moon cake that we sampled. Others -- made from different ingredients -- might be good.

Because we are in the midst of the Moon Festival (AKA Mid-Autumn Festival) in China, we received two containers of moon cakes as gifts. The Moon Festival is that special time of year when people exchange moon cakes. The giving of moon cakes is similar to our fading tradition of distributing fruit cakes at Christmas -- only here, the practice of cake giving is thriving. I don't happen to like moon cakes. I probably would like them had I been raised eating them or if the tradition of celebrating this autumnal time of year was something I'd enjoyed for many years -- or if I were starving. It's frustrating that they taste so bad to me because they look so good, and they come in such beautiful boxes or tins. (My friends and family members may notice an odd smell to the gifts they receive at Christmas this year, but they'll love the boxes they come in.)

After reading the information at several web sites, I've concluded there are as many explanations for celebrating the Moon Festival as there are moon cakes being passed around the Orient. All in all, I think this is a harvest celebration something like our Thanksgiving, but with numerous, differing stories as to its origin. The only for-sure piece of information I've found is that the Moon Festival is celebrated in the middle of the eighth lunar month. Other than that, the sky -- particularly the moon's - the limit. Most of the explanations have a little mythology thrown in.

"The Chinese have a celebration called the Moon Cake Festival. It is a harvest celebration that dates back to the 13th century. There are a lot of folk tales associated with this festival. Chinese people still celebrate the Moon Cake Festival as it is an important part of the Chinese culture. The Moon Cake Festival began over 800 years ago. It was a traditional harvest festival that was celebrated with Thanksgiving, especially if the harvest had been plentiful. The Chinese people believed that the moon controlled whether they would have a plentiful harvest the next year. . . There are many folk tales associated with the Moon Cake Festival. One such folk tale tells about the legendary archer Li Foo. One morning, everyone woke up to find that there were ten suns in the sky. It was steaming hot and the emperor called his best archer, Li Foo, to shoot down nine of the suns. When Li Foo had accomplished this feat, the emperor rewarded him by giving him his throne, his choice of any woman to be his wife, and a magical herb that would give him eternal life. Since Li Foo was not a very kind man, the woman he chose to be his wife (Chang Er) had to be forced to marry him. One day, while Li Foo was away, Chang Er found and ate his herb for eternal life. She then noticed that she could fly. She flew to the moon where she could be far away from her husband. When she got there, she saw a hare pounding herbs under a fruit tree. Being very cold on the moon, she started coughing violently and coughed up the magic herb. She then had a wonderful idea. She asked the hare to pound the herb to a dust which she then spread all over the world, giving everyone eternal life. She then built her own palace where she still lives today. Because of her importance in this legend, images of Chang Er appear on all moon cake boxes and festival posters." [Info from]

"As every Chinese holiday is accompanied by some sort of special food, on the Moon Festival, people eat moon cakes, a kind of cookie with fillings of sugar, fat, sesame, walnut, lotus seeds, the yoke of preserved eggs, ham, dried flower petals or other material. The surface of the food is patterned with clouds, the moon, the rabbit. Some cakes will be sent to absent ones or saved at home for them. In Chinese fairy tales, there live on the moon the fairy Chang E, a wood cutter named Wu Gang and a jade rabbit which is Chang E's pet. In the old days, people paid respect to the fairy Chang E and her pet the jade rabbit." [Info.from]

It's a fairy tale to think the things taste good. I'm sure there are people who love them. Ken Ho, Neptco's Asian Sales Manager, gave Mark and me a tin of four cakes he carried from his home city, Hong Kong. The tin came in a matching gift bag. Ken suggested we enjoy the cakes with a cup of hot tea. I've known Ken a good while now, and his food critiques can't be trusted. Why? Because Ken will eat ANYTHING! His palette is even more adventuresome than Mark's, and Mark's eaten cow pancreas, for goodness sake. I've never heard Ken complain about any food anywhere. He even enjoyed grits the first time he had them in North Carolina, a fact that endeared him to me right away. Ken said the boiled or preserved egg yolks in the moon cakes represent the moon. They represent nastiness in my mouth!

What has happened over the years of Moon Festivaling is that restaurants, grocery stores, and bakeries have gotten in on the business of moon caking. People used to make their own moon cakes, I'm sure, but like folks in the U.S., the Chinese don't have time to bake anymore, so they buy their moon cakes. Sometime around Auguest, people start placing their moon cake orders with kitchens they trust. This is especially true of Chinese businesses, all of which send moon cakes to clients, customers, and business friends. They don't want bad cakes going to good people. No way. In fact, to make sure the moon cakes are fresh when they're eaten, some businesses deliver moon cake gift cards to everyone on their moon cake list. That way, when a person or company is ready to break their teeth -- I mean, sink their teeth -- into a moon cake, they can stop by the store from which the gift card came and collect the cakes.

Our second box of moon cakes was the result of a gift card from the kitchen of the local Sheraton hotel, which happens to be one of the best hotels in Suzhou -- very nice and such a delicious breakfast buffet. That's where Mark lived for a while when he first moved to Suzhou, but I digress. Mark and I haven't tasted the Sheraton moon cakes yet, but we are happy with the box in which they are packaged. It even has a hidden magnetic closure. I continue to be amazed at the beauty, design, sturdiness, and quality of Chinese containers, but, again, I digress. The moon cakes in the box with the magnetic closure look just like the moon cakes that Ken brought, and since I can't read the ingredients list (It's in Chinese, of course.), I think I'll just enjoy looking at them for a while.

One thing no one's told me is whether or not we're supposed to write thank-you notes for the moon cakes we receive. This may be one of those times when writing like a 10 year old who's mom has forced him to compose thank you's to his relatives might come in handy:

Thank you for the moon cakes. You are very nice.

Thank you for the moon cakes. They are so pretty. You are very nice.

My mom said to tell you thank you for the moon cakes.

Thank you for the moon cakes. We gave one to our dog Lucky. He ate it real fast like a dog biscuit. We haven't given him anymore because he ran away.

Thank you for the moon cakes. They came in handy when Uncle Harry and Aunt Gladys came to visit. We didn't know they were coming. They ate just about all of the cakes. Last time they came, they ate all the leftover Halloween candy. Mom says everyone has a purpose in life.

I went to the local mega-store to do some shopping and was amazed at the incredible number of moon cakes one can buy right off the shelves. First were displays of large boxes of cakes. Then came displays of small boxes of cakes. Then came the bins of large individual cakes. Then came the bins of small individual cakes. Finally, there was a bin of itsy bitsy individual cakes.

"Who's been eating my moon cakes," said the Chinese Papa Bear. "Not me," said Ebonylocks.

Thank goodness the Chinese haven't gone super-size crazy like Americans. Moon cakes are very dense. A super-sized moon cake would be an environmental hazard. The weight alone could crumble the earth's crust..

Mark said he's seen lots of people eating and enjoying moon cakes and that my commentary might be insulting. I haven't seen anyone eat a moon cake except him, and the look on his face definitely was insulting. I asked a popular Chinese businessman, who undoubtedly receives hundreds of moon cakes, if he liked them. His answer: "My mother-in-law does." I asked him what he did with so many moon cakes -- besides share them with his mother-in-law. He said he freezes them. If this is what most Chinese people are doing, we're in big trouble. Every freezer in China is potentially an arsenal of mega bullets.

What to do with unwanted moon cakes:

1. Ask everyone you see if he's tasted a moon cake. If the answer is no, invite him over to sample his first cake. Pretend you have only one and are happy to eat something else: a piece of moldly bread, leftover boiled pig's kidney, an old sock that's missing its mate

2. Arrange the cakes on a serving dish, sit them out at night along with a pot of green tea, and hope that a large Chinese elf sneaks in and eats them. He doesn't even have to leave a gift or fill a stocking hanging by the fireplace as long as he cleans his plate.

3. Start a hockey team. You have a ready reserve of pucks.

4. Bronze them and use them as paperweights.

5. Bronze them and use them as doorstops.

6. Soak them in gasoline, set them on fire, and hurl them at your enemies.

7. Connect a pair of them and wear them as ear muffs.

8. Construct moon cake furniture.

9. Build a moon cake house and donate it to Habitat for Inhumanity.

10. Use them as wheels on toy trains.

11. Donate them to an Olympic track and field team.

12. Shelac them, tie ribbons around them, and give them as Christmas presents like your Great Aunt Gardenia did with old loaves of bread

13. Play Bocce moon cake

14. etc.

15. etc.

Here's one recipe for moon cakes so you'll get an idea of how they're made.

Syrup for mooncake
1200g [5.2 cups] sugar
1 kg [4.4 cups] water
1 lime - cut into 4 pieces, squeeze in the juice and put in the skin as well.
3 tbsp maltose
1. Put ingredients into a pot and bring to a boil till sugar has dissolved. Lower heat and continue to simmer till thick and syrupy.
2. Switch off the fire and add the maltose. Stir well to dissolve. Leave to cool and keep for use as syrup for the dough (skin).

Mooncake Pastry
400g [1.7 cups] golden syrup
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tbsp lye water (kan sui)
100ml [.422 cups] peanut oil
550g [2.5 cups] flour
Pour golden syrup, bicarbonate of soda and oil into a mixing bowl. Add in lye water and mix with a wooden spoon. Fold in flour gradually and stir to form a firm dough. Let dough rest for
five hours.

Lotus Paste Filling
500g [2.2 cup] lotus seeds (seong lin)
1 tbsp lye water (kan sui)
340ml [1.437 cups] peanut oil
450g [2 cups] sugar
1 tbsp maltose
1 tbsp kao fun (cooked glutinous rice flour)
1. Add lye water into lotus seeds, mix well and leave aside for 20 minutes. Pour in boiling water and cover up for 20-30 minutes. Strain and wash the lotus seeds to remove the skin.
2. Boil lotus seeds till soft. Put them into a blender with some water and blend into a thick paste.
3. Heat wok with a quarter portion of oil and a quarter portion of sugar. When sugar turns light brown, put in blended lotus paste and the remaining sugar. Stir constantly until paste is smooth and thick in consistency. Add in the rest of the oil gradually. Keep stirring the paste until thick. Lastly, stir in maltose and stir well to blend.
4. Sieve in 1 tbsp kao fun for a thicker and firmer consistency in the paste. Leave overnight before use.

I visited my favorite Chinese market the other morning to get some vegetables and some plastic tubs (for organizing stuff under my kitchen sink). Lo and behold, just inside the entrance to the store was a display of moon cakes. Can you imagine running to the closest convenience store for fruitcake?


Derick S. Hartshorn - 2006-present
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