Mid-Autumn Festival: Taiwanese Mooncake Survey
We’re in the midst of Mid-Autumn Festival (otherwise known as 中秋節 or Autumn Moon Festival) here in Taiwan; besides Lunar New Year (which occurs between the end of February and the beginning of March of every year), Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the biggest and most important holidays here in Taiwan. It’s a time where families have reunions, celebrate the harvest by eating mooncakes and gazing at the moon, and make offerings of food, fruit and flowers to deceased ancestors. There’s many different stories about the origin of the holiday, but I’ll leave that to others to explain.
Mid-Autumn Festival occurs on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar (October 3rd this year, unusually late). I am fortunate enough to be here in Taiwan this year to celebrate it with my extended family, something that I’ve never gotten to do before. Moreover, I’m all the more excited because I get to witness firsthand how the Taiwanese celebrate the holiday; growing up in the US, opportunities to experience elements of my culture are few and far between. So my dear readers, you can imagine how important this Mid-Autumn Festival is to me this year. My only regret is that my dad and my little sister won’t be here to celebrate it with us as my dad wasn’t able to take time off from work and my sister has started her last year at university. So, Dad and 妹, if you’re reading this, 中秋節快樂 and I miss you!
People here usually celebrate by holding family get-togethers, having barbeques outdoors (while basking in the moonlight) and gifting mooncakes to family and friends. In the weeks leading up to Mid-Autumn Festival, all bakeries in Taiwan push out and market their mooncakes aggressively; the trend in the past few years has been to move away from tradition and towards more innovative mooncakes, such as savory mooncakes (I’ve seen pesto and walnut mooncakes), ice-cream mooncakes (Haagen-Daz sells a package of six) to ones that include more Western flavors (chocolate, earl grey tea, rosewater flavored mooncakes). While I appreciate innovation and change, I find that I still enjoy the traditional mooncakes the best.
An inescapable consequence of all the mooncaking is that you will inevitably be gifted with numerous boxes of mooncakes by family and friends; it seems as though every time we meet up with someone, we leave with yet another box of cakes (I think at one time we had 6 boxes of mooncakes sitting in our fridge, keep in mind each box contains at least 6 mooncakes, making that at least 36 cakes for 4 people in our household . . . and typically mooncakes do not contain any preservatives; these are time-sensitive materials, people!). So as of late, mooncakes comprise a large portion of my diet. Keep in mind that these are calorie-dense foods (a 100g portion contains approximately 400-500 calories. I guess you could take it along with you on a run as a Taiwanese-style energy bar . . .)
Not that I’m complaining of course; mooncakes aren’t despised and passed around like fruitcakes during Christmas are; people scarf them without nary a thought to diet and coronary health. But I’m getting side-tracked; let’s talk about mooncakes, yeah?
I’ve decided to do a little survey of all the mooncakes I’ve sampled here; I apologize in advance for the poor quality of the photos, most of these were taken in the middle of the night in my bedroom (I tend to sneak these as a midnight snack . . .)
First up is a 蛋黃酥 (salted egg yolk mooncake with sweetened red bean paste). Like a cross between the heavier, square Cantonese mooncakes and the lighter Taiwanese mooncakes, this example features a flaky egg-washed crust that characterizes many Taiwanese pastries, but a filling of super-smooth sweetened red bean (azuki) paste.
The sweetness of the red bean paste is tempered by the salty cured egg yolk. As a kid, I hated any pastry with egg yolk, but now I love them. The interplay between the salty and sweet flavors is what makes these mooncakes so delicious.
My uncle (who is a devout Buddhist vegan) sent us these vegan mooncakes; these are made with a shortbread-like cookie crust, with a filling of sweetened bean paste, assorted nuts and sesame seeds, as well as a bit of curried chopped mushrooms.
It seems strange to mix both savory and sweet flavors together in a pastry, but this is commonplace in Taiwan (you’ll find that many of the foods here incorporate both elements of sweet and savory together, it’s a “traditional” quality that is prized by the Taiwanese).
Here’s an example of a super-traditional 綠豆椪 mooncake; these were purchased at Yu Jan Shun (裕珍馨), a famous bakery located in 大甲 (Dajia). These feature a tender, flaky pastry skin that is only achieved by making a croissant-like laminated dough. However, while croissants use butter as a fat source, the fat used in this pastry skin is typically made from lard (if not vegetarian) or shortening (if vegetarian). The ones made with lard are more fragrant as it imparts a nice “porky” essence to the cake. This one didn’t contain any meat, but these mooncakes traditionally include a bit of chopped pork and mushrooms in addition to the sweetened mung-bean paste filling (again, here we see the inclusion of both sweet and savory). You’ll see an example of this later . . .
I especially enjoyed this as the mung-bean filling was super smooth, moist but not oily, having a “sandy” but not gritty texture, giving it a wondrous, silky mouthfeel. It’s hard to describe the qualities that made this mooncake so delicious but I assure you I literally was smiling the entire time I was eating this . . . These were exceptionally made, to say the least.
This mooncake (白豆沙小月餅) was from yet another well-known pastry house, 老雪花齋 (how to translate this? Anyone?), this time located in nearby 豐原 (Fengyuan). This one is similar to the one above except that it features a sweet white-bean filling. Again, beautifully made and smiles all around.
Finally, here’s an example of the traditional savory-sweet mooncake; this one comes from yet another famous pastry shop located locally here in Taichung. Apparently this old pastry shop’s cakes are so popular that people need to queue up at the store to purchase them . . . However, these were quite disappointing; the pastry shell, while flaky, was poorly made. It was a bit too dry (maybe they were skimping on the lard?), therefore making it devoid of that “tenderness” that allows well-made pastry skins to envelop their fillings. Moreover, the bean-paste filling was too sweet and oily, the pork filling was char-siu-like (sweetened meat with sweet-mung bean filling?) All of this added up to a mooncake that didn’t properly balance the savory and sweet. My mom and I took a few bites of this purportedly “famous” mooncake and decided we couldn’t finish it, it was just too disappointing.
I don’t like to leave on a bad note; however, we will inevitably sample more mooncakes in the next few days, so I will try to post some reviews on those as well! I hope you enjoyed learning about Taiwanese-style mooncakes and I wish you a very happy Mid-Autumn Festival!