I think that we can all agree that when it comes to food, no one does it better than the Chinese. You can go to a Chinese restaurant and have the meal of your life. Whether it be Cantonese style, or spicy like Szechuan, or all the different flavors, colors, and textures in between. However, when it comes to dessert, the Chinese just don’t do dessert well. Sad, but true.
There’s fortune cookies, and ice cream, of course. But, you won’t find those in authentic Chinese restaurants. You’re more likely to find either slices up oranges or pineapple chunks served at the end in an authentic Chinese restaurant. You might, if you’ve really gone authentic, and are at the end of a family banquet, likely to be served red bean soup.
Perhaps it’s the Jew in Mee. But, that’s not dessert. I think a smart Chinese person could make a fortune creating a whole line of fabulous desserts. Perhaps they just need to partner with a good Jew to put their collective brains together to come up some incredible concoctions… and to market it. At the right price, of course.
Why do I go off on this tangent? Well, because just yesterday, I went to a BBQ with some of my brothers, and being a good guest, we wanted to bring some dessert. At Costco (Jewish Nirvana) I saw this tin of Mooncakes. Two Egg Yolks in each cake! The tin was even red and gold. And it didn’t say “Kirkland” on it. I found the perfect dessert to bring. Or had I??
What is a Mooncake?
That’s the first question I was asked. The tin, I must say, looked fabulous. And it was very useful too (as I was able to safely pack an extremely large piece of three berry pie in it… thank you Mee Wen Dee Wan!). But, I digress. There were four mooncakes in this large tin (I thought there were 24 small individually wrapped one), wrapped in two. So, I had to slice it up to make portions for everyone. That’s kind of when things went a little downhill. The insides got some interesting looks. The smell wasn’t umm, appetizing. Being the brave Mee that I am, I tried the first bite. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting. And so as not to make Mee feel bad, everyone else (I think) tried some too.
Let me reiterate, there is really a HUGE market for someone to invent some real Chinese desserts. If I have totally missed the boat on this one, and there already some delicious Chinese desserts, please let Mee know.
But, I just couldn’t let this lie. Clearly there had to be something to these Mooncakes. After all, Costco wouldn’t be carrying them if they couldn’t sell them. They’re smart! (Could they be Jews? I don’t know… but, I do see a LOT of them on Sunday afternoons). So, I had to do a little research and just find out …
Why a Mooncake?
And this is what I learned:
Mooncakes are an ancient Chinese delicacy, eaten in celebration of the Chinese Harvest Moon Festival, and considered an indispensable part of the Festival experience. (give me fireworks any day… now THAT is an indispensable part of a Festival)
Mooncakes have evolved over the years to encompass many different flavors, materials, and traditions. But they are generally sweet, moist, and somewhat dense cakes. Many cakes have a salted egg yolk in the middle to symbolize the full moon. There is a crust around each cake that is thicker and harder than the interior. Atop each moon cake there is generally a Chinese symbol that translates to either “Longevity” or “Harmony.” It is also common to find the name of the bakery it came from somewhere on the cake. There may be other additional designs such as a moon, a rabbit, flowers, or Chang’e the Moon Woman.
Chang’e The Moon Women:
One of the most famous and widespread myths surrounding the mooncake concerns a woman named Chang’e. Chang’e and her husband Houyi were both immortals living in the sky along with the Jade Emperor, who was ruler of Heaven, Hell, and Earth. The Jade Emperor had 10 sons who decided to become stars in the sky. But the stars were very bright, and emitted such great heat that they were destroying life on Earth. Chang’e and Houyi took pity on the living people of the Earth and so Houyi took out his bow and arrow and quickly shot down 9 of the Emperor’s children, killing them.
Infuriated by this, the Jade Emperor punished the husband and wife by taking their mortality and sending them down to Earth to live as peasants.
But Houyi was determined to find a way to retain their mortality. And after much searching, he found an old woman named the Queen Mother of the West. She gave Houyi a pill that would make him eternal, but she very clearly said that the pill should be broken in half, and that both Houyi and Chang’e should get half. Houyi quickly returned home, leaving the pill with his wife, but was called away before the two could eat it.
While Houyi was gone Chang’e looked at the pill, and was so startled when Houyi returned that Chang’e accidentally ate the entire pill.
Having taken too much of the pill, her body began to get bloated, and soon she began floating off the ground. She soon floated out of Houyi’s grasp, and kept floating away until she soared so high she landed on the moon. There she found a rabbit, and has lived on the moon, with the rabbit ever since. Nw Chang’e, and the Jade Emperor’s only son perpetually chase one another out of the sky. Many people pray to Chang’e for her blessings of beauty and fertile crops.
It should also be noted that Chang’e finding a rabbit may seem sort of random to Westerners, but in Chinese cultures people have often said that some of the markings and colors on the moon look like a rabbit.
What’s in a Mooncake?
Mooncakes have been around for over a thousand years, and one of the oldest variations is called Sozhou. Traditionally, this type of mooncake can have either a sweet or savory, meaty taste. This is because it is often cooked with a lot of sugar, or with a lot of lard and pork mince. While many variations of the Suzhou exist, it is very common to find them with black sesame seed filling for the cake interior.
Some mooncakes, such as the Cantonese style, contain four whole eggs instead of the more traditional, one egg. This represents the 4 phases of the moon. Other types will only contain 2 or 3 egg yolks, which represent the most important moon phases to the region where that particular Moon Cake is made.
Traditionally Moon Cakes have been made with items like lotus seed, red bean, mixed nuts, mung beans, dates, sesame seed or various types of flowers to make the inner cake. However, as the concept spread, and different countries made it their own, the ingredients began to change. And now, over a thousand years after the idea was introduced, mooncakes can be made out of just about anything that can be turned into a paste. Some of the more popular and unique fillings that are widely available today include pineapple, chocolate, jelly, seaweed, yogurt, and even ice cream.
There’s the rub. Dessert shouldn’t taste like paste! Clearly there’s NO DESSERT FOR MEE!
Who wants to be a millionaire? Let’s team up and create some new Chinese desserts!
Humbly submitted for your consumption,
—Mee Magnum (“Chop! Chop!”)