Sun, Sep 07, 2014 - Page 4 News List

Festival highlights traditional treat, new interpretations

NY Times News Service, HONG KONG

At the Lin Heung Tea House in Hong Kong, staff rushed around with piles of mooncakes in trademark gold, blue and red tins.

“Salty or sweet? How many egg yolks?” bakery manager Mak Ling-Hung shouted down the line. During the lunch rush lately, there has hardly been room to stand because of all the people buying mooncakes.

While other retailers have reinvented this Mid-Autumn Festival staple with flavors like chocolate ice cream and Iberico ham, traditionalists flock to Lin Heung. The classic gift box — four cakes with white lotus seed paste and two salted duck egg yolks — costs HK$208 (US$27).

Like fruitcakes in the West, mooncakes are a popular seasonal gift that everyone loves to hate. The original, centuries-old recipe — ground-up seeds, hard-boiled yolks and a lard crust — has fallen out of favor with younger consumers, who turn up their noses at a cake about the size — and nearly the density — of a hockey puck.

Nutritionists caution that the sweet varieties pack about 1,000 calories each.

Chinese central government authorities have long criticized the use of mooncakes. Last year, they barred officials from buying mooncakes with public money. Beijing even set up a “special tip-off window” for Internet users to report lavish government spending on mooncakes.

According to a report on Friday by the China Daily, a state-run newspaper, Wang Qishan (王岐山), head of the Chinese Communist Party’s anticorruption body, “criticized the Chinese tradition of giving mooncakes, which he said creates opportunities for corruption to occur.”

The report also said that “cellphones, jewelry and money are often hidden inside mooncake boxes or baskets.”

Some Hong Kong companies have worked to reinvent the food.

Maxim’s, a regional bakery that produces 45 million mooncakes a year, is making low-sugar cakes, as well as 250,000 ecologically friendly packages with a material resembling cardboard. The company is appealing to younger consumers with Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse branding.

Goods of Desire, also known as GOD, a Hong Kong design company and retailer that produces articles as varied as T-shirts and furniture, offers mooncakes shaped like buttocks. The company sells 10,000 a season.

There have been variations on the theme for decades. In 1986, a chef at the Spring Moon restaurant at the Peninsula hotel created the custard mooncake, with a golden, flaky crust and a filling similar to that in the city’s famous egg tarts.

The lines to buy Spring Moon’s mini-custard mooncakes became so long that the hotel now sells them only on the Internet. This season, it sold out of the Spring Moon cakes in five days.

A handful of players have made the leap to other countries. Kee Wah Bakery — a Hong Kong chain with outposts in Taiwan, China and Macau — sells them in the US.

However, the mooncake does not have widespread popularity in international markets. When the Peninsula introduced mooncakes at its New York hotel last year, it stuck to its custard-flavored creation.

“Whenever you deal with a festival product, there will always be growth because it will never go away,” said Paul Tchen (陳寶山), the Peninsula’s group general manager for operations.

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