|A variety of Mooncakes - Coconut, Starbucks Coffee and traditional Lotus Paste|
Growing up, the Chinese custom of eating mooncakes is one of my cherished memories. At the time, Houston's Chinese population had yet to explode, and I felt like part of a secret society since, as far as I could tell, we were the only family who did this. My mother was born and raised in the Philippines. Despite never having set foot in China, this tradition is something that had been passed down from my grandparents through her, to me. I'm not sure where she procured them. Perhaps the Mooncake Supplier hung out with the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and blessed my mom with these pastries as a reward for being a good Chinese mama all year. She'd get really excited whenever someone would visit from Asia, Canada or California and brought her a box. I suppose these were a little fresher than whatever she could buy in Houston. We would just have one or two for our family of four, and she'd slice these palm-sized pastries into little wedges for us to share.
According to my mom, mooncakes are part of the Feast of the August Moon, occasionally called the Feast of the Harvest Moon. I would usually point out that it was September, sometimes early October, but never, ever August. My child brain may have chalked this up to a major time zone difference. California is two hours behind Texas, and Asia is a whole month behind. Later, I understood that it fell on the full moon of the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, not the Gregorian one I was taught in school. Even back then, I learned that just because something is different doesn't mean that it's wrong, a notion that would come up quite often in my adult, expat life.
Shortly after I arrived in Malaysia, I was amazed to discover that this "secret" tradition is wide-spread here. Pining for home a little bit, it was a shred of something familiar from my childhood. In Malaysia and Singapore, it seems that everyone refers to it as the Mid-Autumn Festival or, less frequently, the Lantern Festival (not to be confused with China's version of the Lantern Festival which occurs during the first month of the lunar year).
Last weekend's trip to Singapore's Gardens by the Bay coincided nicely with the Mid-Autumn lantern celebrations they were holding. I have not seen anything on this grand scale anywhere in Penang.
|A life-size house lantern floating on the lake|
|Lots of people came to Singapore's Gardens by the Bay to look at these large lanterns.|
|Something for the kids to enjoy|
|One of the winners of the lantern making contest|
Mooncakes are all over the place in Penang. There's big displays at the mall, local bakeries and restaurants make them, and they're readily available at the grocery store. It was no longer a rare commodity. My Zumba instructor handed them out after Tuesday's class, and a friend had a box to share at the school playground. She said that it's traditional to exchange them with each other or bring them as a hostess gift when invited to someone's house.
I was raised on the traditional Lotus Paste with a Single Salted Egg Yolk mooncake. I brought one into my workplace in Texas once since it was staffed with adventurous foodies, and one friend described it as having a taste reminiscent of marzipan. My hubby and kids don't really like them because, being a Chinese dessert, they only have a hint of sweetness, not the tooth-achey sugar rush you get from American pastries. Unfortunately, they are very high in calories.
|Traditional Lotus Paste and pumpkin seed filling|
No salted yolk because I always pick it out.
Oh my goodness, the varieties you can get over here! Malaysia offers an endless list of flavors from Pandan to Green Tea to Cookies and Cream. Even Durian filling is available. My favorite non-traditional flavor this year is Coconut which reminds me of Filipino Bibingka but with shreds of coconut throughout and no cheese.
Mooncakes are made by wrapping the filling around a cooked, salted egg yolk representing the moon and then wrapped with the outer pastry layer. Each assembled piece is pressed into a wooden mold to create the decorative impressions and then removed before baking. The round cakes are a symbol of family unity and good health. Somehow, the Skype session between my mom and I a few weeks ago ended with us each brandishing our own mooncake molds at the web camera. I'm not quite sure how that supports family unity.
Same shapes are specifically designed to appeal to kids. Sponge Bob or Mickey Mouse, anyone?
|Chocolate Mickey Mouse mooncake|
Whereas Starbucks aims to deliver the same espresso drinks no matter what store you are at in the world, they do offer special items that cater to the local palate. If you ever come across an Asian Dolce Latte, try it. It's like Vietnamese coffee and so very yum. In Malaysia and Singapore, they also sell mooncakes. In fact, the Caramel Macchiato and Tiramisu fillings they offered two years ago are probably my favorite of all the nouveau flavors I've sampled since moving here. Alas, their mooncake menu has changed, and these primo fillings have not reappeared.
|Notice the Starbucks logo on top of their Tiramisu mooncake.|
I was also introduced to Snow Skin mooncakes. Unlike traditional ones which are baked with a pastry outer crust and served at room temperature, snow skin mooncakes are not baked and have an outer layer of glutinous rice, similar to that in Japanese mochi ice cream. These have to be kept refrigerated, are served chilled, and are perceived as a healthier alternative to traditional mooncakes.
|Strawberry Snowskin mooncake|
Other international chains have joined in the mooncake frenzy and offer their own interpretations of this treat. Haagen-Dazs offers one with a praline base, ice cream filling surrounding a mango sorbet "yolk" and covered with a hard chocolate shell.
|Ice cream mooncake|
Godiva Chocolatier sells one that's essentially a large chocolate candy. I know that you readers are desperate to know what one tastes like, so I bought one for the sake of the blog. The Duo Lait version has a top layer of milk chocolate ganache with hints of mandarin and red cherry and a punch of cinnamon and sea salt sitting on a bottom layer of California almond praline. It also costs about US$2.50 a bite. Pricey!
By this time next year, I'll probably be back in Texas, so I'm enjoying all the mooncake madness while I can. Have you ever tried mooncakes?
This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox and "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" on The Tablescaper. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.