The wax and wane of moon­cakes

This tra­di­tional Chi­nese pas­try is now mak­ing an em­phatic come­back as restau­rants seek to outdo one an­other

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - TASTE - By XU JUNQIAN in Shang­hai xu­jun­qian@chi­nadaily.com.cn

The Xucheng Ho­tel in Suzhou may look like the typ­i­cal, non­de­script Chi­nese State-owned fourstar ho­tel, but its fame among the lo­cals cer­tainly su­per­sedes its unin­spir­ing fa­cade and in­te­ri­ors.

Widely con­sid­ered to be one of the best moon­cake mak­ers in the city, the ho­tel’s main restau­rant — it does not even have a name — is helmed by chef Pan Xiaomin who showed no lack of can­dor when asked about his kitchen’s rise to fame which started in the late 1990s.

“We started mak­ing moon­cakes for the most ab­surd and ir­rel­e­vant rea­son,” laughed the 66-year-old, a no-non­sense man who is al­ways armed with a cigar in one hand.

“The owner wanted to up­grade the ho­tel into a four-star prop­erty and this meant that our restau­rant needed to in­tro­duce a Western pas­try menu as stip­u­lated by the na­tional tourism author­ity.”

Pan was livid at the de­mands, par­tic­u­larly be­cause he knew it was im­pos­si­ble to teach his cooks how to make bread and cakes in such a short time.

Be­sides, his ex­per­tise was in craft­ing del­i­cate Chi­nese dishes such as the famed sweet and sour squir­rel fish and stir-fried river shrimps.

Al­most non­cha­lantly, Pan set­tled on moon­cakes, the tra­di­tional food that is con­sumed dur­ing the an­nual Mid-Au­tumn Fes­ti­val, which falls on Oct 4 this year, sim­ply be­cause he knew how to make it.

There are many va­ri­eties of moon­cakes on the mar­ket. The type that Pan pro­duces is known as the Su-style ver­sion which comes with a flaky ex­te­rior sim­i­lar to a crois­sant and is filled with sa­vory fill­ings like pork. Since the moon­cake was the only “Western-like pas­try” the ho­tel restau­rant had to of­fer, it was made avail­able all year round.

The moon­cakes by Xucheng Ho­tel have since be­come the ac­ci­den­tal star in the lo­cal din­ing scene. In fact, they have even been rec­om­mended by China’s most renowned food critic Shen Hongfei.

Sales of the moon­cakes, which cost less than $1 per piece, have been grow­ing steadily at an an­nual rate of more than 10 per­cent. This year, the ho­tel and its other branches in the city are ex­pected to sell a record high of 3 mil­lion moon­cakes.

One of the most im­por­tant tra­di­tional Chi­nese fes­ti­vals, the Mid-Au­tumn Fes­ti­val is widely cel­e­brated across the coun­try and is seen as an oc­ca­sion to re­unite with fam­ily mem­bers. Moon­cakes were in­vented to sym­bol­ize re­union and the pleas­ant mem­o­ries brought by kin­ship.

Sun Chunli, deputy di­rec­tor of Xing Hua Lou Food and Restau­rant, one of Shang­hai’s most his­tor­i­cal moon­cake mak­ers that was es­tab­lished in 1851, noted that moon­cakes were not com­mon­place be­fore the 1950s be­cause of lim­ited pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity and in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity of in­gre­di­ents like su­gar and nuts.

Moon­cakes dur­ing those times were also sig­nif­i­cantly larger, nearly the size of an adult per­son’s palm. Then, a fam­ily would share just one piece of moon­cake fol­low­ing din­ner on the day of the Mid-Au­tumn Fes­ti­val.

It was only after the 1990s when China re­opened to the world that moon­cakes started to be­come gifts.

A ma­jor switch in trends

Ac­cord­ing to Chen Feng-wei, sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the Shang­hai Con­fec­tionery In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion, moon­cakes used to be an im­por­tant source of in­come for many bak­eries and con­fec­tionery fac­to­ries be­cause they were a highly pop­u­lar gift dur­ing the Mid-Au­tumn Fes­ti­val.

In fact, the fo­cus was hardly on the pas­try it­self, but on the elab­o­rate pack­ag­ing and the side gifts that could be as ex­trav­a­gant as gold bars.

In late 2013, the Com­mu­nist Party of China banned gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials from us­ing pub­lic funds for of­fi­cial gift-giv­ing. The sales of moon­cakes, to­gether with other pop­u­lar gifts like im­ported wines and lux­ury prod­ucts, were se­verely hit since.

Be­cause of the ban, moon­cake mak­ers were forced to in­no­vate and re­think their busi­ness strat­egy. In­stead of po­si­tion­ing the prod­uct as an at­trac­tive gift, bak­eries in­tro­duced a larger se­lec­tion of fla­vors and kept the prices af­ford­able to the masses. What re­sulted was a sales boom.

“The anti-cor­rup­tion ban has pushed ev­ery bak­ery and moon­cake maker to stay com­pet­i­tive by re­plac­ing the tra­di­tion­ally dense pas­tries with novel in­gre­di­ents,” said Chen.

Ac­cord­ing to the Shang­hai Con­fec­tionery In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion, there are as many as 200 types of moon­cakes avail­able on the mar­ket this year, up from 150 types last year. Newly in­vented fill­ings in­clude cheese and cray­fish, pick­les and bull­frogs, and even fried rice.

The as­so­ci­a­tion also ex­pects Shang­hai res­i­dents to con­sume 22,000 tons of moon­cakes this year, up by 15 per­cent from 2016.

Mak­ing a killing

Shangri-La Ho­tel Group re­ported an aver­age 10 per­cent in­crease in its moon­cake sales from sev­eral of its prop­er­ties, thanks to its newly cre­ated fill­ings like dried tea leaves and fresh spicy pork.

In 2015, Hong Kong en­ter­prise Maxim’s Group started to sell its fa­mous salted egg yolk moon­cakes on the Chi­nese main­land through its e-com­merce store on Tmall. Ac­cord­ing to the com­pany’s man­age­ment team, the de­ci­sion to do this was made after they found that their moon­cakes — they were best-sell­ers in Hong Kong for 19 con­sec­u­tive years, ac­cord­ing to Nielsen — were so pop­u­lar among main­land con­sumers that other com­pa­nies were copy­ing their prod­uct.

The com­pany ex­pects the sales of the egg yolk moon­cake on Tmall to grow three­fold from last year.

At Michelin-starred restau­rant Yi Long Court at Penin­sula Ho­tel Shang­hai, the egg cus­tard moon­cakes have been widely cred­ited as “the Her­mes of moon­cakes” be­cause of the price tag — they cost around $10 each — and their exquisite qual­ity. The moon­cakes were said to be in­vented 30 years ago by chef Yip Wing-wah at the lux­ury ho­tel group’s Hong Kong prop­erty.

“The moon­cake scene is so com­pet­i­tive now that we have to keep in­tro­duc­ing new of­fer­ings,” said Tang Chi-keun, chef of Yi Long Court.

The restau­rant in­tro­duced their hand­made durian moon­cakes last year and will fol­low up on that this year with a new pan­dan moon­cake.

Tang added that the fill­ings for the durian moon­cake are made with fresh duri­ans im­ported from Pe­nang in Malaysia.

“Com­pe­ti­tion in­spires and mo­ti­vates real chefs to be cre­ative. Moon­cakes, as well as other Chi­nese tra­di­tional desserts and pas­tries, can be as ap­peal­ing as Western cakes. I think it’s high time to spice them up,” said Tang.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

The Shang­hai Con­fec­tionery In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion says that con­sumers will be able to find as many as 200 types of moon­cakes on the mar­ket this year.

PHO­TOS BY GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY

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