COMMENTARY, Sept 28 — When is a mooncake not a mooncake?
That’s a question my friend asked me when she faced the deluge of mooncakes everywhere — in the supermarkets, the bakeries, the requisite pop-up stalls — in the month or so before the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Certainly the sheer variety convinces one that just about everything counts: those filled with cempedak pulp and Musang King durian to those laced with tiramisu and double espresso. Some mooncakes are inspired by other countries, such as Persian pistachios and Japanese sweet potato.
The exteriors aren’t left out of the equation. There are mochi snowskin and almond marzipan. Some charcoal maybe or green pandan? And that’s just natural colouring; let’s not begin with the artificial hues some mooncake skins sport.
(Remember back when snowskin mooncakes were a crazy reinvention of a traditional treat? Seems a long time ago.)
Surely there are limits, my friend asked. Pink Himalayan salt chocolate almond sounds more like a health food than an ancient Chinese delicacy.
When is a mooncake not a mooncake?
Perhaps when it’s a symbol for something else. Maybe the mooncake represents a desire to return to the good old days but also for ritual and routine, to celebrate tradition. A reminder that the years may pass but next year will arrive.
A reminder that we will find our own way.
Life can surprise you — along with various trips of cuti-cuti Malaysia. When I dropped by the sleepy town of Kluang some years ago, it was the last place I’d expect to purchase and enjoy mooncakes.
Old-school Kluang kopi made from coffee beans roasted in butter, yes. Roti bakar in the form of crusty buns filled with fragrant kaya and more butter, yes. But mooncakes?
And no ordinary mooncakes at that. These were loaf-shaped rather than round or square. More like auspicious koi fish than a full and incandescent moon. When is a mooncake not a mooncake?
These Shanghainese mooncakes come in three basic flavours: the classic lotus paste, aromatic pandan and my favourite red bean paste. With or without egg yolks. Perhaps without, given how rich their buttery crust is. (Butter seems to be the theme when visiting Kluang, no?)
Mooncakes, it would appear, come in all shapes and sizes and flavours. As with life, as with people.
Folks queueing up for their turn to select and take home boxes of their favourite mooncakes reminds me of how different we may all look on the outside but how similar our desires can be. The simple stuff, the good life, that’s all we want.
The good life is everywhere, if we open our hearts to it. When in Ipoh, we hanker for dim sum and nga choi gai (bean sprouts chicken) naturally. Yet there are other pleasures to be had here.
One such delight is the local dan wong sou, the moist egg yolk lovingly enveloped by velvety lotus paste. Look at the flaky pastry, some would point out. That’s not the baked and greasy skin we’re used to. That’s not a mooncake.
When is a mooncake not a mooncake? Surely when it tastes right, when it evokes what came before us.
We celebrate the legend of Chang’e, of the hero’s wife who drank the elixir of immortality. Her husband shot down nine out of 10 fiery suns, leaving one to illuminate our world. They called him a hero for that.
Chang’e kept faith. Chang’e protected her husband’s reward, a gift from a thankful deity. Chang’e could have left for good but she chose to remain on the moon, to be close to the one she loved the most. She is honoured for her fidelity but we forget that she is a hero too.
We bite into this local treat and we aspire to be honourable and heroic too, when the time calls for it.
Back in KL, I stumble upon another version striped with violet swirls. The interior promises purple yam or taro. Humble fare. The taste reminds me of the yam ice cream my father would scoop up for dessert when we were children, triumphant in his ability to provide.
It is a small action but one suffused with so much love. The older I get, the more I see that. I see that now in this mooncake that others will not recognise as such. But why do we care what others think?
When is a mooncake not a mooncake? Who knows, really?
With the right set of eyes — the appropriate way of viewing and an openness — we may encounter mooncakes wherever we go. Not only the fancy and fanciful stuff but the ordinary and the unremarkable.
Yet what makes them unremarkable — the way they don’t have to shout out how special they are from the rooftops, the way they don’t have to strain to persuade us of their superiority — is exactly what makes them so remarkable nowadays.
When it feels as though everyone is screaming at the top of their lungs for recognition and affirmation, it’s those with quiet confidence that moves us the most.
By not calling attention to themselves, these simple and straightforward pastries draw us back to the myths of the mid-autumn, of the defeat of the 10 terrible suns, of spouses and sacrifice. Mooncakes remind us of undying love and longing, of grand feats even the smallest of us may muster when called to.
As we nibble on another wedge of mooncake, as we sip carefully brewed tea, we learn that we don’t have to strive to impress others. Instead of asking how we can earn their compliments, we only ask how we may contribute.
How do we make their lives, and our own, better?
When is a mooncake not a mooncake? My friend’s question has now become a refrain, almost a Zen-like koan.
We find our own way. We rediscover ourselves with every age but also those who came before us. We honour them. We remember them. The years must pass but the next year will arrive, also.
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