MOON­CAKE MA­NIA!

For­eign food­ies try China’s most pop­u­lar sea­sonal snack

Global Times – Metro Shanghai - - CITY PANORAMA - By Qi Xi­jia

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

5.3 points

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

6.1 points

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

6.6 points

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

7 points

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

7 points

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

7 points

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

7.6 points

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

8.5 points

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.”

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Katie Hind Nynke

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