Foreign foodies try China’s most popular seasonal snack
There is arguably no other culture that places more emphasis on eating than China. From dumplings to hot pot, thousand-year-old eggs to Peking Duck, Chinese cuisine is the definition of diversity. Mooncakes, one of China’s most iconic sweet snacks, are also known for their vast range of ingredients. With this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival falling on October 4, the Global Times decided to challenge some foreign expats in Shanghai to taste and rate mooncakes of both classic and modern flavors being sold around the city this holiday season.
Our mooncake taste test included almost every imaginable kind of mooncakes available on the market. All in all they can be divided into two categories: Cantonese style and Suzhou style.
Cantonese style features round, smooth pastries with embossed calligraphy or designs on their surface. They used to only be eaten in South China’s Guangdong Province, Hong Kong and Macao but have now extended all around China as a popular autumn-season staple. Their fillings typically consist of red bean or lotus seeds or may contain egg yolk.
For over one thousand years, Suzhou-style mooncakes were preferred by most Chinese for their layers of flaky dough and a generous helping of sugar and lard. They are also smaller and thinner than the Cantonese style. Within this regional type, there are more than a dozen variations, featuring both sweet and savory types. The latter are usually served hot and filled with pork
meat. Our official taste-testers – Katie from the US, Hind from Morocco and Nynke from the Netherlands – have of course eaten mooncakes before, but it was their first time sampling eight different flavors.
Mooncake stuffed with lotus seeds and egg yolk
It was a bit of surprise that this flavor ranked worst among the eight, given that it is usually considered the most luxurious of Cantonese-style mooncake. Because it contains lotus seeds and egg yolk, it is priced higher than other types, at around 10 yuan each ($1.52).
It has a unique, mixed flavor of sweet and salty. But this wasn’t the reason our foreign foodies gave it such a low score. According to them, foreigners are simply not used to duck egg yolk, which is extremely dry and salty.
“The dryness of the egg inside is weird,” said Katie, who gave it only 6 points. “I love the lotus part but I don’t like the yolk. If I bought this mooncake I would remove the egg yolk.”
Mooncake stuffed with dried shrimp and radish
Though this type of filling has long been applied to other Chinese baked pastries, it was only in recent years that it became part of the Suzhou school. Yet the flavor has been met with polarized reactions from both Chinese customers and our own foreign tastetesters.
“I like this one. It has a little bit of a pickled flavor and I like pickled
radish,” said Katie, who gave it 8 points. But one man’s meat is another man’s poison; Hind frowned just from smelling it. “I don’t like the smell. It’s really strong and fishy. I really don’t like the taste either. The shrimp tastes so strong. I don’t like it.”
Mooncake stuffed with red beans
Red-bean-stuffed mooncakes are another classic flavor. It is available in both Cantonese and Suzhou style and priced lower than other flavors. The sort we prepared for our participants was from the Suzhou school, with red letters stamped on the outside of the dough, which stirred curiosity among our testers.
Nynke said she doesn’t understand the Chinese characters but she still thinks it looks nice. But Hind said she wouldn’t dare eat the red ink. Actually, you can; when the dough is first made, it is stamped with a natural food coloring before being baked in the oven so that customers know what filling is inside.
As for the taste, the participants all liked the sweet red beans, but the dry, flaky dough as well as the oily texture took some points off.
Mooncake stuffed with pork
Pork mince flavor is one of the most old-fashioned mooncakes of the Suzhou style. It is beloved by locals for its cheap price (around 5 yuan) and juicy texture. Thus, you will often see many gray-haired grannies queuing up for hours just to buy a box of pork mince mooncakes to share over the October holiday.
But the filling was just too common for our participants, who only gave it an average of 7 points. “I don’t like it much and I don’t hate it much. It’s kind of plain,” said Hind.
Mooncake stuffed with frog and picked vegetables
There are few mooncakes that have caused a bigger stir across China than this. Originating from Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, frog-flavor has become the most expensive of all mooncakes, going for at least 15 yuan apiece. “I am pretty scared. But I am going to have a try maybe just a small bite,” said Nynke, who has never before eaten an amphibian. “Actually the taste is very nice; a little bit like chicken,” she said after swallowing.
Having tasted frog before, Hind gave 7 points to this mooncake. “Most of the frogs I have had in China were fried with a lot of chilies. This mooncake is a little bit plain; maybe with a little bit of spice it would be better,” she said.
Mooncake stuffed with coconut
Coconut-filled cakes are typical of Cantonese cuisine, as palm trees abound in South China. Our participants liked its soft dough compared with the Suzhou style, but deducted some points because of the weak coconut flavor and oily feel.
“It doesn’t have a really strong coconut taste,” said Katie, who gave it a low 5 points. But Hind gave it an 8. “I really like the dough compared with the Suzhou style. But now I have oil on my fingers,” she complained.
Mooncake stuffed with five kernels
No modern mooncake has been more attacked by netizens than five-kernel-filled mooncakes. A few years ago there was even an online campaign to try to kick the notorious five-kernel cake out of the mooncake family!
There are two reasons for its unpopularity. The mixed taste of five types of nuts and seeds, coarsely chopped and held together with maltose syrup and candied winter melon, jinhua ham or pieces of rock sugar as additional flavoring, seem to be too much for one’s taste buds.
Another reason is that, even though it’s supposed to be made with five kernels (walnuts, pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds, peanuts, sesame seeds and/ or almonds), many dishonest Chinese manufactures have been caught cheating on the expensive ingredients, replacing the nuts with plain sugar.
However, the fate of the five kernel mooncake was reversed by our foreign participants, who gave it the second-highest ranking. “I tasted the almonds, walnuts, white sesame and sugar,” said Hind, who gave 8 points. “I like the flavor. It’s not too sweet.”
“It also tastes like sunflower seeds and sesame and
dried green plum,” Katie added, who gave it 6 points. Nynke gave it 9 points, the highest thus far. “It is really similar to what we Netherlanders eat during Sinterklaas, a traditional holiday in the Netherlands,” she said.
Mooncake with meat floss and salted duck egg yolk
Shanghainese seem to be particularly crazy over this flavor. Before this mooncake started selling here, there was a popular green rice ball with a similar flavor being sold on the streets, which caused locals to queue up for hours. This year the flavor was adapted by the mooncake industry.
Even before eating, our participants were attracted by its pleasant smell. They all liked its taste, too, but suggested less salty might be better. Hind gave it 9 points, her highest. “I really like this one. The dough is less oily compared with the red-bean one.”
Katie Hind Nynke