Sat, Sep 06, 2003 - Page 16 News List

A new mooncake rising

Mooncakes have been with us for around 700 years, but are still changing with the times

By Gavin Phipps  /  STAFF REPORTER

Chef Stephen Lo of the Imperial Hotel, Taipei, believes that packaging plays an increasingly important role in the marketing of mooncakes today.

PHOTO: GAVIN PHIPPS, TAIPEI TIMES

Love them or loathe them, with the Mid-Autumn Festival only six days away mooncakes are everywhere. Be it at the local mom and pop corner store, the 7-11 or the glitzy new European supermarket, the sights and smells of the round pastry covered cakes are impossible to avoid.

Traditionally filled with red or green bean paste and now crammed with every conceivable form of filler from kiwi to egg custard, the mooncake has come a long way since the first one rolled out of the oven of an enterprising revolutionary by the name of Chu Yuan-chang (朱元璋) during the Yuan Dynasty (1279 to 1368).

Looking for a way to incite the Han people into revolt against the much-despised Mongols without alerting them, Chu, with the help of his confidant, Liu po-wen (劉伯溫), circulated a rumor that a plague was ravaging the land. The only way to prevent a disaster was to eat special mooncakes that were distributed by Chu and his fellow revolutionaries.

Distributed solely to Han people, on the outside the cakes looked normal enough. Inside, however, lay a message giving to the day on which the anti-Yuan insurrection was to begin.

Reading "revolt on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month" the date has since become one of the most important holidays in the Chinese calendar, second only to the Lunar New Year itself.

While mooncakes are no longer used to incite rebellion -- nowadays they represent family unity and perfection -- there has been a revolution in the way in which they are manufactured and packaged.

"When I was growing up in Hong Kong there were only a couple of varieties of mooncake. You had the choice of red bean, green bean or lotus paste," said Stephen Lo (盧偉強), an executive chef at Taipei's Imperial Hotel. "And they came in a simple cardboard box."

Traditional Cantonese, Taiwanese and Soochow-style mooncakes with their bean paste and egg yoke fillings continue to be popular with older generations, but over the past decade bakers have been forced to forgo tradition and move with the times.

Constantly searching for inventive ways to interest a younger generation more in-tune with Western foodstuffs than their parents, bakers now stuff their crusty pies with some highly unusual fillers.

"If I'd made a kiwi mooncake in Hong Kong as recently as 10 years ago I would have been laughed out of the kitchen," said the chef. "Now I'm forced to come up with new and inventive fillings every year."

Some of the more popular flavorsome additions to the mid-Autumn treat in recent years have included ice cream, egg custard, ginseng, rose, green tea as well as kiwi and XO brandy. Due to current trends in juice bars, this year has seen a rise in the number of vegetable mooncakes, with both tomato and carrot paste flavors leading the way.

While tomato mooncakes are proving a hit not all "fashionable" additions to the ever-increasing list of mooncake flavors have fared so well. Some have surprisingly fallen flat with the mooncake buying public.

"We made coffee and chocolate mooncakes a couple of years ago and we expected them to prove pretty popular, with Taiwan's fascination with coffee shops being at an all time high," said Eddie Liu (劉冠麟), assistant director of food and beverage at the Far Eastern Plaza Hotel. "Neither flavor worked, however, and we won't be using either of them ever again."

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