If mooncakes are the fruitcake of Asia, then it’s no wonder that I have such a soft spot for the hearty little underdogs. It’s hard not to root for food with such a bad holiday (re)gift-giving reputation. Dense, heavy, stodgy—sure—but I actually think fruitcake tastes good. I’m not bowled over by the looks of these studded loaves, though. Mooncakes also taste good, however I’m more taken by their range of flavors, colors and designs. They have style and substance.
My first mooncake tasting in 1999 was slightly accidental. Browsing through Chinatown on the way to a friend-I’m-no-longer-friends-with’s apartment in the East Village (we’d both started dating new guys around this time, and it’s weird to think that we’re still with them. In fact, I think she’s marrying hers this month. Mine is her former best friend.) I ended up in a bakery. It’s hard to resist the pull of sweets in glass cases, no matter their country of origin.
A few of the treats on display seemed a little spendy, and it was exactly these round, pastry-covered orbs that I was most attracted to. I purchased a couple, knowing they were mooncakes, but not realizing they were a sporadic special occasion item. It wasn’t until I plopped onto the beastly pal’s bed and started snacking on my treasures (or does that make me the beastly one? She didn’t have a proper living room, just so you know.) that I realized how dense and rich they were.
Clearly the cakes were meant to be savored and shared, though I wasn’t prevented from plodding my way through them (I have no sense of portion control or stopping when full—I’m the quintessential American glutton that Europeans love to feel superior to.). They were mostly of the standard baked, lotus seed paste variety. I don’t think I got any surprise mouthfuls of egg yolk, though I definitely did get one of those nutty ham filled ones. Sweet and savory is one of my favorite flavor combinations, so it was a welcome surprise.
That was my first and last foray into the world of mooncakes until last year when I happened to be in Singapore during mid-Autumn festival (there was also that Hungry Ghost thing going on—what is scarier than ravenous spirits walking the earth?). We really got into the mall culture of the city, sort of because I enjoy shopping centers (particularly in other countries) but mostly to escape the exhausting, sticky heat (we couldn’t stop marveling at how all over S.E. Asia if a restaurant had both outdoor and indoor seating, everyone went al fresco. Me, no way.).
Takashimaya quickly became a favorite stop. We have one here in NYC, but it’s completely different, small, sparse, way precious and expensive. And most glaringly, it lacks a food court, instead merely offering the zen chic Tea Box Café in the basement where fast food fun should be. Our second visit to Nge Ann City was a sensory overload. On the bottom floor we were bombarded by the overwhelming snack stalls where we never were able to snag a seat. Then I had my mooncake interest rekindled by Bengawan Solo who tempted me with rows of soft, translucent miniature rainbow-colored confections (snowskin style, I later discovered).
Like a baby drawn to bright shiny objects, I go gaga for loud, multi-hued edibles. It’s hard to articulate, except on a superficial level, why I’m so attracted to S.E. Asian kueh, as well as American anomalies like green ketchup and blue Pepsi. Rather than reveling in organic and natural like so many foodie zombies, I relish the garish and invented. Slow food and fast food don’t have to be incongruous. Not everything that’s insanely colored lacks craftsmanship.
After being schooled in snowskins, I got distracted by crazy Beard Papa (he’s in NYC now) and weirdo Tio Glutton (I’m waiting for him next). Why are the Japanese so food crazy? And why do they seem to love anthropomorphizing edibles so much? Kogepan, beerchan and the cheese family are but a mere few such freaks of nature. Well, Asians in general (not to generalize) seem way more fixated on culinary customs that we are.
It wasn’t until I stepped out into the open mall for a little breathing room that I noticed the space adjoining Takashimaya that formerly housed an art exhibit had been transformed into what appeared to be a mooncake convention in full swing. Sweet Jesus, I almost crapped myself, it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. Stalls were swirling with customers vying for prime sampling and ogling positions. I regret my bewildered passivity—I didn’t get to try as many toothpick skewered morsels as I would’ve liked. It was a frenzy of purveyors and patrons. High-end hotels and local bakeries were competing for the public’s attention, each trying to outdo the other with inventive flavors, ornate packaging, and elaborate displays.
At least I was able to grab a glossy brochure from just about every table. My knowledge of style and variety was gleaned through these alluring pamphlets, not first hand experience. I have no childhood memories or points of reference to discern the good from the bad (though I’m not so retarded that I couldn’t recognize that Garfield, coffee-flavored Starbucks, and ice cream filled mooncakes probably aren’t traditional.) Shangahai, Teocheow, two yolks, four yolks, baked skin, snow skin…so much to learn.
The snowskin grabbed me, simply because I’d never encountered them before. They’re striking in color and flavor. Pumpkin, chocolate, strawberry, Oreo!? So gauche, yet so alluring. I could pick up a tin of the standard cakes in any substantial American Chinatown. But China filtered through S.E. Asian traditions only travels so far. These new anomalies I had to capture for safekeeping.
At least in my mind, and here in print, since I’m not much of a picture taker (I still have film from Christmas ’03 that I’ve yet to develop). Even buying a digital camera has proven futile in increasing my photographic output. While I’m fascinated by the food photography of others, I feel too self-conscious to snap shots in restaurants and markets. I’ll stick to the tedious written word for now, and leave the pretty pictures to those who do it better.