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10.08.2006

Nobody Likes Moon Cakes

Yesterday (October 6) was the mid-Autumn festival, a main event in the lunar calendar that was doubly significant this year, since it fell in the middle of the week-long National Day celebration, when all of China is on vacation and most of China is on the road. Considering that the festival also fell on a Friday, it was nearly the ultimate party weekend, spoiled only by a bit of rain.

WalMart is my reliable early-warning system for Chinese holidays. Three weeks or so before any main event, various special exhibits start popping up, and more and more floor space of the store is devoted to lanterns or zongzi or whatever the item of interest might be, similar to the Halloween and Christmas infestations that hit American shopping malls. About a month ago, I noticed a profusion of gorgeous and expensive red boxes taking up more and more shelf space - the mooncakes had arrived - and I spent some time debriefing my Chinese friends.

"What are mooncakes for?"

"For the mid-autumn festival. They are very famous. Usually we exchange them with friends and eat them cut into small wedges, with tea."

"Do you like the taste?"

"Hmm, maybe not so much."

Which is the polite Chinese equivalent of putting your finger in your mouth and miming the gag reflex.

"Strange," I thought, "Why make a holiday dessert no one wants to eat?"

Mooncakes, of course, are the exact cultural analogue of the American fruitcake, that venerable Christmas pastry of astonishing density that brings people together by uniting the giver and receiver in a shared reluctance to eat it. The Chinese have not yet advanced as far as those intrepid Americans who store a received fruitcake for a year before re-gifting it to another victim, but there are promising signs that the failure to let mooncakes overwinter may just be a function of limited apartment storage space, solvable by applying economies of scale:

"Earlier this month, a prominent mooncake factory in Nanjing was reported to have minced and frozen last year's leftover mooncake fillings and reused them in this year's product. "

At its simplest, a mooncake is a pastry crust wrapped around a disk of filling that in shape, flavor and density strongly resembles a hockey puck. Traditional fillings include lotus seed paste and the salted yolk from a duck's egg, but modern mooncakes can come filled with pretty much anything. A Chinese character baked into the top of the cake warns you what to expect inside.

In simpler times, mooncakes were something you bought cheap in a paper sack and ate in wedges with your friends, bonding in shared hardship. In recent years, however, the trend has been to offer mooncakes packaged up in more and more ornate gift boxes, complete with brass sculptures, fancy utensils, bottles of brandy, and (for the completely unsubtle) miniature bars of gold. These blinged-out mooncakes have proved a useful way to flaunt great wealth, or offer that important someone the equivalent of an envelope full of cash while preserving some semblance of deniability.

Mooncake scientists have been caught a little flat-footed by the rise of the luxury gift box, and are racing to come up with high-end fillings to do the hyperornate presentation justice. A popular 'lucky' price point for the finest boxes is 9999 yuan ($1200), at which point even the most perfectly round egg yolk is not going to be adequate. A Western chef in this impasse might reach straight for the Perigord truffles, but the Chinese prefer their hideously expensive ingredients to lack flavor. They've enlisted the old standbys: shark fin, swallow's nest, pearl dust and (for those who really want to sledgehammer the point home) flakes of metallic gold. The approach so far has been limited to "let's find something really expensive and grind it up and put it in there", but work on the five-star mooncake continues, with perhaps a hint of desperation:

"The shark's fin was first stewed for hours in sugar water. After it dried, chefs mixed in some ham slices, various nuts and preserved fruits. "

Unlike a fruitcake, you cannot soak a mooncake in brandy to make it edible - it has to go down on its own merits. I noticed that the most popular mooncakes this year were those that gave the traditional recipe the widest possible berth. Häägën Däzs, past masters at selling extremely overpriced ice cream on the Chinese market, deployed their perennial winner: chocolate-covered ice cream mooncakes. These suspiciously Klondikeian confections have been selling like... well, like hotcakes, to the point where anyone who doesn't pre-order them in the summer months is just out of luck.

Other multinationals haven't been as successful. Starbucks tried to crack the market with a chocolate-and-lavender offering that perfectly blended the rich taste of cocoa with the floral aroma of bath soap, but this proved too much even for the hardened mooncake eater. Meanwhile KFC, the other titan of the China market, chose to punt with a custard tart that it lamely emphasized as "moon-shaped".

I thought I would check in with that touchstone of all things cultural, my Chinese chat harem, to see if there was any love anywhere for the poor pastry:

<rc> when i was at university, there was a Dept called food and agriculture
<rc> one of the classes was about how to cook things
<rc> before the moon cake days, they taught how to make moon cakes
<rc> the mooncakes made by the students were hard like a rock, they even used it like a stone to fight for fun
<rc> when moon day came, the university sent all the students free mooncakes which were from that Dept
<rc> no one ate it, we did the same thing as the cooking students did, so there was a moon fight
<idle> ha, can I steal that story from you?
<rc> of course
<rc> dont forget the starbucks part
<rc> i will never forgive them for making a lavender moon cake

There is one other traditional food served on the mid-autumn holiday: the pomelo. This lovable fruit can be forgiven its harmless self-indulgence in the area of rind thickness; under all that skin it tastes like a simple, no-nonsense grapefruit. Homely, fresh, tasty, and impossible to package, it makes the perfect foil for the mooncake.

So long as no one develops a a shark fin pomelo (and I'm sure research is ongoing in some blood-spattered Guangdong basement) it will remain the great green hope against the gentrification of the mid-autumn festival.

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