Friday, September 21, 2007

Howling Over Moon Cakes

This coming Tuesday (Sept. 25) is the Autumn Moon Festival, celebrated by many Chinese families all around the world. It’s the second most festive celebration in the Chinese culture after the Lunar New Year. I remember growing up in Honolulu, my mom would spend all day cooking in the kitchen making all of her favorite dishes and then we’d spend the night hiding from our relatives who came over for the feast (my siblings and I were shy kids). Because the Moon Festival celebrates the coming of the first harvest, you have to put on a pretty big spread to make it a bountiful fall.

One of the treats of the festival (because you know there has to be sweets for any happy occasion) is the moon cakes. They’re pastries molded into a circular form to resemble the moon and then filled with a variety of sweet pastes made with ingredients such as lotus root, black sesame or red beans. There’s even some fillings that are like a minced meat pie and one resembling what can only be called a fruitcake. The moon cakes often have these decorative relief images on them, which is made by pressing them into bamboo molds with specialized carvings. Because a lot of oil is used to make moon cakes, a well-used mold will often have the dark sheen of years of happy use. (The carvings are typically Chinese characters of the bakery’s name, but they may also be some lucky words.)

The Moon Festival was one of my favorite festivals growing up because of the folklore that surrounded it. The story goes that a young couple in love (aren’t they always?) wanted to escape an angry father who didn’t want them to be together. They attempted to fly to the moon with the help of a fairy, but only the woman was able to reach the moon. But every year, during the first full moon of the fall, the couple reunites for just one night. Another story is connected to the moon cakes. During the period when the Mongols ruled China, an uprising was organized by having secret revolutionary plans inserted into the moon cakes. That’s supposedly how the Ming Dynasty came to be.

Now that you have a proper background of the festival, on to the food discussion, which I’m sure you’re much more interested in hearing. I love moon cakes but I try not to eat that many because, like I mentioned above, a lot of oil is used to keep the filling moist. Moon cakes are sold in boxes of four and you’ll find them at local Chinese bakeries, some dim sum restaurants and Chinese grocery stores. Some boxes, especially the tin boxes from Hong Kong, have elaborate designs of the lady in the moon. Some people swear by the Hong Kong varieties, saying the Hong Kong brands have a more expert technique and flavor. But these moon cakes are generally very expensive and you run the risk of it not being as moist as locally made moon cakes. (A box can run about $25 to $40.)

San Francisco is lucky in that it has a very old Chinatown with a few bakeries. For years, Eastern Bakery’s moon cakes were very popular on Grant Avenue. But when it became too much of a tourist destination, many of the locals started feeling that Eastern’s moon cakes weren’t as good. Nowadays, you’ll see a long line (even longer than usual) at Golden Gate Bakery (also on Grant Avenue) as people wait in line to order their moon cakes. (Photo at very top shows the line at Golden Gate Bakery last night at around 6:45 p.m.)

I personally feel Golden Gate Bakery uses too much butter and oil in their products, so I don’t feel like standing in their long lines for what may be a very greasy and oily moon cake. So I ended up at Eastern Bakery. (photo right) Despite being written off as a tourist trap, their moon cakes are still pretty authentic. And since I’m the Single Guy, I’m really just looking for one cake.

Above is a picture of the moon cake I purchased at Eastern Bakery. It’s made with a lotus paste filling and one egg yolk. The egg yolk is important to the moon cake because it symbolizes the moon. But you can get moon cakes without them because some people don’t like the salty flavor of the egg mixing in with the sweet filling. (The egg is preserved in salt water before being added to the moon cake.) The yolk is my favorite part because I’m a savory-sweet kind of guy. I paid $5.25 for that one moon cake (I know, moon cakes are expensive). If you don’t want to invest that much in trying your first moon cake, Eastern Bakery offers these mini moon cakes for a few dollars less.

Party in the Streets of San Francisco: While Tuesday is the private family celebration of the Moon Festival, the public festivities occur this weekend (Sept. 22-23) when the Chinatown Merchants Association puts on the annual Moon Festival street fair. Grant Avenue will be closed off to traffic and you can wander and buy things from the food booths and flower stands. If you always thought Chinatown was crowded, it’ll be even more so during this street fair that occurs on both Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Eastern Bakery, 720 Grant Ave., San Francisco. PH: 415.982.5157
Golden Gate Bakery, 1029 Grant Ave., San Francisco. PH: 415.781.2627


Unknown said...

Hey SGC, I'm sorry I missed the moon festivities this past weekend, but now I am going hunting for a delicious mooncake. Very interesting reading!

Chubbypanda said...

Sadly, I missed the festival as well. Cat and I had just gotten back from Canada and we were dead tired. Otherwise, we usually celebrate it with a picnic in the moonlight.