Remember when we oohed and aahed at caramel sprinkled with sea salt? And how we lined up outside our favourite cafe for maple-glazed bacon pancakes for brunch?
We are a nation obsessed with sweet and salty combinations. It's hard to refute a classic Hawaiian pizza where sweet pineapple and savoury ham come together. (Yes, I know pineapple on pizza is controversial, but in my opinion, it simply works). However, as the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, or Moon Festival, approaches, there's another sweet-and-salty treat I must talk about. This one's been around for about 3,000 years and it's called the mooncake - a pastry containing a salted duck egg encased by a sweet paste.
Celebrated by billions of people around the world, the Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Lunar Calendar. It's said to be a time when the moon is at its brightest. Asians believe that this is auspicious and it's become a time for family reunions and gatherings. It's also a time to eat symbolic mooncakes.
In the lead up to the Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on 21 September this year, people gift each other mooncakes. Traditional mooncakes are typically round, but also square, shaped pastries with fillings of red-bean and white lotus paste. The filling surrounds a salty, cured duck egg.
Growing up in the 1980s, I always saw mooncakes laid out on our kitchen counter and wished they were swapped for zongzi, which is eaten during my favourite Chinese festival — the Dragon Boat Festival. Although I did love anything with red beans and proudly chose a Taiwanese dessert over any chocolate cake as a kid, I did not have the same fondness for mooncakes back then.
I partly didn't like mooncakes because in the '80s it was pretty much always supermarket quality, featuring oily pastries and some not-so-favourite fillings. However, as many moons have passed, this may not be the only reason. My dislike for them as a child is often shared by people throughout Asia, too. For example, a survey in Hong Kong showed that locals love giving mooncakes to their friends but don't particularly like eating them.
Mooncakes vary across Asia as Chinese people migrated, so you'll find many varieties to feast on if you happen to be in Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and in China during the Mid-Autumn Festival. In China's Suzhou, you have meat-filled pastries akin to meat pies and in Yunnan, mooncakes are made with candied ham.
Mooncakes are often packed in tins. There are at least four per tin and once you open one, you never know if you're reaching for a cake with a sweet red-bean filling or the mixed-nut and bacon filling - which could possibly be the worst mooncake filling I could ever reach for, slightly crunchy yet a little stale with the nuts half-roasted and sweetened.
Unfortunately for most Australians, it can be difficult for some to access the made-to-order kind. They are time-consuming and labour-intensive to make, so we often rely on the supermarket variety. Many mooncakes sold in Chinese and Asian grocers are most likely from Hong Kong, which is known to have popularised them in the 1960s when it became recognised as a global financial centre and had commercialised them. However, as time goes by, more local bakeries are making them across the country; Amour Desserts in Melbourne, Taipei Dainty Bakery in Sydney and Kangti Bakery in Brisbane, all come to mind.
"You never know if you're reaching for a cake with a sweet red-bean filling or the mixed-nut and bacon filling."
While mooncakes aren't everyone's favourite treats, friends from Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong still talk about them with joy during the Mid-Autumn festival. However, it's difficult for them to ship their fresh ones to me since the ingredients are highly perishable. They should be eaten when the pastry, filling and duck egg is fresh.
Traditionally, they have been a humble dessert, but nowadays family-owned bakeries to luxury hotels are making versions using various ingredients. Truffles, Champagne and even Spanish Iberico ham have floated into the centre of these cakes. While Michelin-star chefs are also embracing them selling them at a much higher price point, you can also find luxury brands, like Louis Vuitton and Gucci, tapping into the mooncake industry in the hopes of attracting more shoppers. As a traditionalist, I choose to stick to my everyday, humble mooncake with white lotus paste.
Come 21 September, I'll be looking at the brightest moon of the year and wishing for a closer family reunion in 2022, even if it involves a tin of mooncakes. At least I'll be with my crazy family and we can eat them together.
Bold, ruthless and darkly humorous, New Gold Mountain brings to the screen for the very first time the remarkable and untold story of the Chinese miners who arrived in the Victorian Goldfields in their thousands in the 1850s to try to make their fortune. New Gold Mountain airs over two big weeks premiering Wednesday 13 October at 9.30pm and continuing on Thursday 14 October, Wednesday 20 October, and Thursday 21 October at 9.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #NewGoldMountain