Testing the boundaries of traditions is what new generations do best, and in China, the traditional mid-autumn festival mooncake is in the firing line.
There was a time when a mooncake was flaky, crusted, sweet or savoury, but never jellified or frozen.
In the 1980s, snow-skin varieties began to appear across Hong Kong and the Canton region; these require no baking and come in two main forms: glutinous rice or jelly. The former takes on the texture of mochi and is often called a ‘snowskin mooncake’.
But since then, things have sped up.
“There are more styles of mooncakes nowadays,” says Dong Xing, digital producer at SBS Mandarin. “The fillings and flavors have more variety. For instance, you can find mochi filling, ice cream filling or even fruit.”
Durian and matcha flavouring, as well as lava-centered cakes don't go astray these days either.
“Consumers want to try new things and some big brands in the food industry want to expand their business in China. I still remember when Haagen-Dazs released its ice cream mooncake in Beijing about nine years ago, young people were crazy about it. It was truly a cool moon festival gift for your partner,” says Xing.
"I still remember when Haagen-Dazs released its ice cream mooncake in Beijing about 9 years ago, young people were crazy about it."
The gifting of mooncakes holds a cultural significance during the annual mid-autumn festival in Asia, and signifies the full moon and family reunion in its round shape. The treat is so significant to the festival, which falls in spring in Australia, that the event is often referred to as ‘mooncake festival’ or ‘moon festival’.
New iterations of the cake have gone from ice cream to luxury item, with high-end fashion brands even cashing in on the tradition and gifting exclusive branded moon cake gift sets to their most valued customers.
Other variants include a Starbucks coffee mooncake, McDonald’s mooncake sets, KFC-branded meat and pastry mooncakes, and a giant OREO mooncake.
Xing agrees that making mooncakes ‘cool’ is a positive step in keeping Chinese youth in touch with traditions. “Youngsters are keen to be creative and try new stuff and the moon festival is one of the most important cultural festivals for Chinese community. I think it would be a great start to treat them to a mooncake first and then tell stories of the festival.”
As for Xing, his favourite is still the traditional Cantonese-style lotus seed paste and egg yolk combination. “Some people prefer traditional mooncakes simply because they love the flavor,” he says.
Often these traditional Cantonese-style cakes are stuffed with a singular egg yolk, but can be bought stuffed with two, three, or four yolks, representing the four phases of the moon.
The traditional cake can be time-consuming and laborious to make, so they are often purchased in decorative boxes, ready to gift.
If you’d like to try your hand at home, the snowskin version (think mochi) is simpler to make ahead of moon festival.
Mooncakes are rich, heavy, and dense compared with most Western cakes and pastries. They are usually eaten in small wedges accompanied by Chinese tea and symbolise family unity and perfection. Mai’s recipe uses mung beans but red bean paste or lotus seed paste can also be used. You can also add a drop of food colouring to the wrappers for a more vibrant cake.
A range of varieties can be purchased from select Asian supermarkets and bakeries.
For more Asian baking inspiration, watch Donal's Asian Baking Adventures with double episodes Sundays at 8.30pm on SBS Food (Channel 33) from Sunday 8 September, with streaming after broadcast on SBS On Demand.
Kaya, or coconut jam, is a popular spread in Singapore and Malaysia, and brings a rich coconut flavour to baking. You can usually find it at Asian grocers and online.
This recipe borrows a bit from several Asian cuisines. It is not faithful to any one country, but is delightful all the same.
Dorayaki makes a tasty teatime cake rather than after-dinner dessert. However, simply adding matcha to the cake batter – and serving with cream – gives you a smarter-looking dish more appropriate to a dessert course. I’ve provided a recipe for the adzuki bean paste, but you can purchase tinned cooked red bean paste from Japanese or Asian supermarkets.