Jessica Chan muses over how the rise of quirky mooncakes have rekindled her family’s oft-overlooked Mid-autumn traditions.
When my blue moon turns to gold
Soursop with calamansi or foie gras. If you had told me these mooncake flavours would populate my dining table on zhong qiu jie (Mid-autumn festival) a decade ago, I would have said you were pulling my leg. Also, mooncakes no longer come shoddily wrapped in paper (cue memories of Tai Chong Kok bakery's traditional green bean mooncakes) but are housed in elaborate chests with fancy motifs, embroidery and LEDS.
Rather than dismiss these new-fangled flavours and over-thetop packaging, my family of conservative tastes (or so I thought) has not only wholeheartedly embraced them, but also made them our new Mid-autumn tradition.
Growing up, the festival held little significance. Not that my father didn’t try. He would gather the family for a joyous night with the neighbours at the park. The adults would chat about the latest happenings, while the kids fought over whose lantern was the pick of the bunch. I do have fond memories of outmanoeuvring my brother to get what I deemed was the best cut – with the egg yolk – and almost setting my paper lantern aflame.
Still, it wasn’t quite like Chinese New Year or Christmas with the fanfare and presents. There were no big holiday movies, like All’s Well, Ends Well or Love, Actually, for us to romanticise nor was there any purpose to it, such as paying respects to our ancestors on qing ming jie (All Souls’ Day). Perhaps my father felt the same or that it was impossible to wrangle two rebellious teens into the same room together. He gradually ‘forgot’. When my brother and I went abroad for our studies in far-flung Scotland, it was the final nail in the coffin for the Chan’s family Mid-autumn festivities.
Ironically, it was in this foreign land devoid of any Chinese traditions that I learned the significance of the festival. The student city of Dundee had but one Asian supermarket. When August came around, shelves would always be stocked with cheap mooncakes. It tasted horrible, but homesick students would still chip in for a box and organise a get-together. Me, included. It was much too windy for lanterns, but my flatmates and I still did the quintessential Mid-autumn activity of shang yue (moon appreciation). Throw in a warm pot of tea, our wry humour, plus the grimace of foreign friends trying the saccharine treat and it made for some of my best memories abroad.
What always came after, however, was a strong urge to call home, not unlike the poets of the Tang Dynasty who would pen down praises for the moon’s beauty and yearnings to distant relatives and friends. Most famous is Li Bai’s jing ye si (Thoughts upon A Quiet Night), where he beautifully translates the mix bag of emotions that comes with pinning for his hometown.
Filled with a strong sense of homesickness, I came home one year bearing mooncakes from Intercontinental Singapore. I was hoping to use my father’s love for Man Fu Yuan restaurant to push forward the revival of our Mid-autumn parties. Alas, it didn’t come to pass. Between my parents’ crazy schedules and my brother busying himself with my newborn niece, there was hardly ever time to kick back and relax. I couldn’t believe it was that difficult.
Then, it happened; with one tin box packed with Raffles Hotel Singapore’s Signature Champagne Truffle Snow Skin Mooncakes. Was it the novelty? I’ll never know but everyone loved it. Even my mother who turns her nose at these 'gimmicky’ mooncakes could be found sneaking pieces onto her plate. Impressed, my father even broke out his precious Chinese tea set which I was only allowed to “touch with my eyes”. He delicately went through the motion to prepare the aged Pu’er from Yunnan, and paired it with the dessert. It didn’t work. But that only fuelled his search to find one that did.
And so, it began. The year after was Goodwood Park Hotel’s Black Thorn Durian snow skin with long jing (Dragon Well tea). Then came Summer Pavilion’s baked Mini Custard Lava with Vanilla, which went swimmingly with dessert wines and, my favourite, Shang Palace’s Honey Chocolate Collection, which reinvented mooncakes as truffles infused with Tasmanian Manuka honey that's great with a pot of Darjeeling.
This year? We have yet to decide. Chefs are pushing the envelope with novel creations every year and we are spoilt for choice. I have my eye on the Manhattan Mid-autumn box, which includes the award-winning bar’s barrel-aged cocktails in vibrant snow skins, but Grand Hyatt Singapore’s Baked Green Apple with Trigona Honey is a close second. Whether they will work with my father’s new batch of teas is another question. But leaving the pageantry aside, it really is the coming together of my whole family that really takes the (moon) cake.