It is one of Hong Kong’s most treasured food traditions: the buying, giving and eating of “mooncakes” to mark mid-autumn festival, celebrated in Chinese communities around the world next month.
Bakeries and supermarkets are already packed with boxes of the dense pastries, traditionally filled with a heavy sweet concoction of lotus seed and egg yolks. But not all mooncakes are made equal. Picky customers will queue outside the most popular stores to ensure they bag their favorite brand.
Mooncakes by chef Yip Wing-wah (葉永華) of Hong Kong’s famous colonial era Peninsula Hotel are among the most in demand — and the priciest. Boxes of eight of his Spring Moon mini egg custard mooncakes cost US$66 and are only available in a three-day pre-order sale online, to avoid previous unseemly queues at the hotel.
This year’s sale took place last month and sold out weeks ahead of the festival. Now 65, Yip invented what has become his signature mooncake 30 years ago when he worked as a dim sum chef at the hotel’s Spring Moon restaurant. It was inspired by gooey egg custard buns, a classic dim sum dish, and is smaller and lighter than traditional mooncakes, although it still packs a sugary buttery punch.
“I have an emotional attachment to it, really I do — because I would never have guessed that it would grow more popular every year,” says Yip, who started to work in Hong Kong restaurant kitchens aged 13.
Deep in the Peninsula’s basement, Yip kneads elastic golden dough to show how he and his team will make this year’s new lychee-flavoured spin on his original classic. Rolling it out into lengths he plucks small pieces off and flattens them between his hands before using them to encase sweet filling.
Each dough ball is then pressed individually into a mooncake-shaped hole in a heavy wooden holder, which Yip bangs three times on a worktop to pop out a perfect pastry. Those who get hold of a box will share them with friends, family and business associates as part of the festival, which is the second largest in Hong Kong after lunar new year.
The legend behind it revolves around a beautiful woman called Chang E (嫦娥), who drank an elixir of immortal life to keep it out of the hands of a rival of her husband. It caused her to ascend to the moon, leaving her distraught husband on earth. He took her favorite foods to an altar and offered them as a sacrifice to her, a ritual then adopted by local people.
“Mid-autumn festival is about coming together as a family to eat mooncakes and fruit and to admire the moon,” says Lam Mei Yu, 40, biting into one on Hong Kong’s harbourfront during a visit from her home in the southern mainland Chinese province of Guangdong. For his part, Yip vows to continue to bake them as long as he is able.
“As I make more I become happier,” he said.
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