It looks like a mooncake.
It smells like a mooncake.
But its label reads: “Roast duck.”
Hey pal, that’s not a mooncake, that’s a meat pie!
And yet, this is no newfangled flavour. It’s a traditional offering from a longstanding Hongkong bakery in Sydney’s Chinatown. To be fair, the filling is an intriguing combination of browned duck skin, honey, sesame seeds, fatty morsels and other temptations. (Roast chicken flavour also available.)
The Mid-autumn Festival
The Mid-autumn Festival is that day in the lunar calendar on which the moon is at its fullest and most dazzling. This year, that day falls on 19 September. (OK, that’s spring in Australia, but autumn in China and Korea where the festival is celebrated.)
Depending on who you are, it is also called:
- the Mooncake Festival (epicures),
- the Lantern Festival (children / pyromanics), and
- Thanksgiving (Koreans).
As for me, I call it the Mooncake Festival these days, but it was always the Lantern Festival when I was growing up in Singapore.
You see, as a child, I disliked mooncakes but loved carrying lanterns and setting fire to old lanterns. We were a wild-eyed bunch.
The Tale of the Jade Rabbit
Chinese people gazing at the luminous moon during the Mid-autumn Festival see not cheese or craters, but a beautiful lady and a rabbit.
A rabbit? On the moon?
Here’s how it happened. It’s a fairly typical story of how immortals like to put mortals to the test.
Three heavenly sages, disguised as pitiful beggars, descended to earth and begged three animals for food.
Clever Fox found some meat. Agile Monkey picked some fruit. But Gentle Rabbit was dismayed at being unable to hunt or forage.
In an altruistic and heroic fashion unknown to rabbits in Western fairy tales, Rabbit leapt into the campfire to turn itself into a meal for the hungry three. Impressed, the sages re-named it The Jade Rabbit and sent it to the moon as the immortal companion of Chang’e, the Moon Goddess (pronounced “Chahng Erh”).
During the Mooncake Festival, indulge in the Chinese ritual of drinking tea and pecking at mooncakes al fresco while admiring the moon. See if you can spot the silhouettes of Chang’e and her bunny in the moon.
Local Secret #1: Artisan Mooncakes
Seeing as I’m more glutton than pyromaniacal kid these days, my current focus is on mooncakes.
So I was delighted when Jessie insisted that I try her favourite mooncake: “Every customer I’ve introduced it to always returns for more.”
Jessie and Thomas Chen are an affable Taiwanese couple who run my local Taipei Dainty Bakery whilst juggling the demands of a young family. I don’t lay claim to any pub as “my local”, but when it comes to bakeries…
The vegetarian Taipei Dainty Bakery is a very popular stop on my Burwood Grazing Adventure: Asian Thrills. My guests always planning a return trip here!
Their mooncakes come in traditional Taiwanese flavours rarely seen in Sydney, such as black date paste, pineapple jam and red bean paste with walnuts.
The X-factor in Taipei Dainty’s mooncakes lies in the pastry. Factory-made mooncake pastries use sugar as the main sweetening agent.
Thomas uses a complex mixture of fresh and dried fruit. He simmers this, then leaves it to intensify for 2 weeks before use. The resulting pastry contains less sugar, and carries a refreshing tang that nicely offsets the rich, sweet filling.
Jessie’s Favourite Black Date Mooncake
Inside this mooncake lurks a smooth, inky paste of black dates.
In traditional Chinese medicine, black dates have recognised health benefits. But that is purely incidental to me: as everyone knows, the proof of the mooncake is in the eating.
The raisin-sweet date paste has a smoky undertone, making its flavour more layered than the usual lotus seed or red bean fillings. The zesty pastry adds piquancy – unusual for mooncakes yet delightful.
Some insider information from Jessie: “Savvy customers can detect this is an unadulterated date paste. From its fragrance and intensity, they know it hasn’t been blended with black beans to cut costs.”
Within a week, I was back at the shop for more.
I have officially become a statistic of Taipei Dainty’s black date paste mooncake. But hey, conscientious food writers make repeat visits, right?
Local secret #2: Price Slash!
Psst! Did you know that factory-made mooncakes sold in tins of 4 are massively discounted once the Mooncake Festival is over? Just like Easter eggs after Easter.
Look out for them in your Asian grocer. Original prices range from $12 to a crazy $50.
Celebrating on a Grand Scale
Just as Easter eggs appear in February (keeps getting earlier), you can be sure mooncakes will pop up every August. Even Costco in Sydney has them!
Below: The salted duck’s egg yolk represents the moon.
Much fanfare accompanies the Mid-autumn Festival in countries like China, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Witness this pop-up mooncake market in a Singaporean mall. That’s an entire floor selling nothing but mooncakes!
Photo courtesy of Cheryl Koy
Koreans have also celebrated the Mid-autumn Festival since ancient times, with uniquely Korean traditions in food and rituals (no mooncakes).
One Festival, Two Cultures
How did Chang’e the mortal maiden end up in the moon as a goddess, I hear you ask.
That’s one long ♥♥♥ love story ♥♥♥ combined with heroism, devious disciples and intense heartache :’-(. Hence the title of this post.
To hear The Legend of Chang’e Flying to the Moon, and experience the Mid-autumn Festival (complete with Korean and Chinese treats), and find out why Koreans call it Thanksgiving, join me for a specially-themed Mid-autumn Korean Adventure on 14 September.
Apart from a bountiful banquet and entertaining shopping to uncover the mysteries of Korean cuisine, we’ll also do a Blind Taste Test of Mooncakes. See if you can identify which mooncake is from Taipei Dainty Bakery! 😉
This is an independent, uncommissioned review of Taipei Dainty Bakery (183B Burwood Rd, Burwood NSW 2134, Tel 8960 0334). A shorter version of this article was written for the Strathfield Scene.