Amid flavour fatigue, why mooncakes still matter

·5-min read
Have you had your first bite of mooncake yet? – Pictures by CK Lim
Have you had your first bite of mooncake yet? – Pictures by CK Lim

COMMENTARY, Sept 4 – It’s that time of the year again. No, not Christmas. Not Halloween, not yet. The Dragon Boat Festival was over two months ago; just enough time has passed that the sight of another sticky rice dumpling wouldn’t worry our waistlines.

The fête in question is the Mid-Autumn Festival, which this year falls on the third Tuesday of September. I mention the date only because it seems as though the celebration has been ongoing for the past month or so.

Have you had your first bite of mooncake yet?

My friends and family have been raving about the mooncakes they’ve been eyeing and buying, receiving and relishing, since July. It’s never too early, especially if you ask the maker of mooncakes.

And even if you don’t eat mooncakes – I’m one such specimen, at least this year (but more on that later) – you have to marvel at the sheer audacity of flavours they concoct, trying to one up one another and draw the most discerning of customers (or those who get bored easily, at any rate).

Plain lotus paste or red bean paste, well, that’s just too plain, innit? Even the hidden treasure of a single salted egg yolk is no longer astonishing. Double egg yolks are common now; four egg yolks, easily accomplished.

No, mooncake connoisseurs expect more riveting flavours. Not coffee, for instance, but kopi O or white coffee or double espresso. No mere apples or oranges but apple vodka and yuzu shochu.

Then there are mooncakes filled with the King of Fruits, or some paste-like rendition of it, typically whipped with lotus paste and plenty of sugar. Beyond plain old durian mooncakes, there are durian and almond, durian chocolate, durian pandan.

Even the type of durian matters. In Malaysia, it’s good for branding to announce that your durian mooncakes are made with Musang King; in Thailand, it’s the local Monthong durians that are folded into the mooncake filling.

I can’t help but wonder, Why not just eat durian as it is, be it Monthong or Musang King?

Why does a mooncake have to be so complicated? (Or as some would say, pattern liao liao.)

Mooncakes are meant to be shared, even if we aren’t together in the same place.
Mooncakes are meant to be shared, even if we aren’t together in the same place.

Perhaps we only have ourselves to blame as consumers. Whether we are seven or 70, we seem to all suffer from some degree of attention deficit in an age of likes, shares and retweets. Even mooncakes have to keep upping their game, if these pastries are to excite our jaded palates and imaginations.

Well, then. Let’s go a little crazy, shall we?

How about a tom yam mooncake, all savoury and sweet, sour and spicy, and more pungent than a baked pastry ought to be? And it’s not just Thai flavours that get mooncake craftsmen inspired.

Feel like something Japanese? Try a subtly fragrant sakura ebi mooncake or a not-as-subtle aged black garlic mooncake. For Korean flavours, try the American ginseng and chicken mooncake.

Peranakan enthusiasts will adore a baked mooncake redolent of belacan, dried shrimp and shredded pork floss or a snowskin version suffused with blue pea flower extract.

There are ice cream mooncakes; mooncakes where every component has some form of the exalted salted egg yolk incorporated; mooncakes stamped with the images of popular comic and anime characters, from the Avengers and the Justice League to Doraemon and Hello Kitty.

(I shall leave it to you to identify which mooncake flavours above are real and which are made up; you might be surprised.)

Some of these outrageous flavours actually sound intriguing. Rose petal cream, lychees and raspberries are a classic combination that worked wonders for Pierre Hermé’s signature Ispahan macarons, so why not mooncakes?

And how could you go wrong with the sheer decadence of dark chocolate orange Grand Marnier, even if it’s in the form of a snowskin mooncake, which I’ve said I don’t particularly care for but there are always exceptions, no?

Packaging matters in selling mooncakes nowadays.
Packaging matters in selling mooncakes nowadays.

We haven’t even discussed the moulds used, from rustic and rudimentary to ostentatious and ornate; the packaging that must wow both buyer and their intended recipients since mooncakes are often purchased as gifts.

So you may bring home your mooncakes in the form of faux tiffin carriers or a S.H.I.E.L.D. Quinjet. Dragons and phoenixes. A vanity drawer. A traditional game of congkak. A puzzle box.

All that jazz. So why aren’t I eating any mooncakes this year?

Decision fatigue, perhaps. Too many choices. Being health and longevity forward, too; too much sugar, carbs and fats in these increasingly processed mooncakes. (And those reduced sugar mooncakes? Most just taste sad.)

At the end of day, perhaps none of the above are reason enough. Perhaps I just want a simple wedge of red bean paste mooncake, no salted egg yolk, no nuts and ham, no chocolate or fruits, nothing fancy.

In a trying year, perhaps the simplest flavours comfort us the most.
In a trying year, perhaps the simplest flavours comfort us the most.

In a trying year, perhaps the simplest flavours comfort us the most.

Where mooncakes are concerned, I like being boring. Make it simple.

Beyond the legend of Chang’e and moon worship, the Mooncake Festival is a time for gathering and giving thanks. The former will be a challenge this year as we still maintain social distance for safety.

The latter, however, we can practise even from an ocean away. We call our loved ones via Zoom or FaceTime and we mirror each other, pouring hot pu’er tea and taking slow sips between tiny bites of our mooncakes.

It doesn’t matter that mine is a baked mooncake, filled with a dark slab of red bean paste, and yours is your favourite mini snowskin, infused with Moët & Chandon champagne.

Take a bite, a sip of tea, and offer a prayer for everyone’s well being.
Take a bite, a sip of tea, and offer a prayer for everyone’s well being.

What matters is that we are both safe and sound, healthy and strong, sharing a moment of gratitude and praying for better times to come. For us and for everyone. May we be well and happy always.

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