Learning to Love Moon Cakes

Lori Writer / Heavy Table
Lori Writer / Heavy Table

My first taste of moon cake was at a hole-in-the-wall Chinese bakery during San Francisco’s Chinatown’s Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, a Chinese harvest festival celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon is at its fullest (October 3, for 2009). It was the nineties and I was fresh out college, living on my own in the Big City. I loved everything about city life: the way buses would gasp and lurch from stop to stop, the brisk and important way office workers rushed to their sky-rise offices every morning, and the way the bike messengers fearlessly jutted into, then zig-zagged through traffic. But I especially loved the little ethnic restaurants, with their unfamiliar aromas and menus written in incomprehensible script.

Chinatown, with its Pagoda gates, guarded by dragons of stone, and ornate street-lamps in the shape of Chinese lanterns, had always intrigued me. In a mere hour, one could drive from where I’d grown up in the suburbs — land of fast-food chain outlets and sprawling shopping malls –and be immersed in this other culture. I didn’t know what a Moon Festival was, but I was determined to find out. I pushed through the throng on Grant Street, which was closed to traffic, to watch the lion dancers bob and weave their giant paper maché heads to the crashing and clanging of drums and cymbals. I peered into all of the herbal shops wondering which ailments all of those musty herbs and fungi cured.

Every little bakery had a handwritten sign in the window advertising moon cakes. These bakeries were packed with customers, chattering and gesticulating wildly like traders on the floor of a commodities exchange, but they were aged Chinese women in silk jackets instead of men in wool suits. Each customer would eventually emerge, smiling, with pink boxes tied with white string, and scurry off, bumping into me without evening noticing as they exited.

Unable to contain my curiosity, I mustered the courage to enter one shop. I stared into the baked goods case. There were at least a dozen varieties, all about the size and shape of hockey pucks, but golden and pastry-crusted. Like Chinese pie. Having no idea which filling I might prefer, sweet lotus paste or duck egg or mung bean, I pointed at the one that looked the prettiest, stamped with ornate Chinese characters. “How many? she asked. “One,” I replied. “Just one?” she lifted an eyebrow, then retrieved my moon cake, slid it into a white paper bag, and handed to me.

Outside the shop, I pressed my back against the brick wall so that passersby could avoid me, then peeked in the bag. I examined my treasure, heavy for its size, admired the beautiful markings molded into the top, then gingerly bit into it. The cake did not yield. A strain of Chinese music, a violin, screeched and wailed in the distance. A trio of women in silk jackets brushed past me.  I bit hard and got a mouthful of dense, chalky dough and a smidgen of a vaguely-sweet paste. It wasn’t pie at all! More like Chinese fruitcake. I adjusted my expectations and took another bite. Still desert-dry. Disappointment overtook my frugal self, and I threw the rest away. I thought about those smiling women and their string-wrapped pink boxes and wondered who they were serving those moon cakes to, and what terrible things those people had done to deserve them.

Lori Writer / Heavy Table
Lori Writer / Heavy Table

It would be a decade before I would try moon cake again.

On a visit to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I met up with friends at a cafe for brunch to celebrate a friend’s birthday. When I arrived, my Vietnamese friends were already hunched over cups of tea –some steaming, some iced — or squat individual-serving sized Vietnamese coffee pots. While we contemplated the brunch menu, our host, the birthday celebrant, passed a parcel resembling a small hat box to our waiter, who disappeared into the kitchen with it. A table of twenty across the dining room had a hat box at their table, as well as numerous gifts wrapped in pink. A young girl at that table was wearing glittery butterfly wings, she would periodically show off, climbing down from her chair and twirling for all to admire. Near the end of their meal, the waiter removed the lid of the hat-box to reveal a three-layer cake, iced in white and decorated with exquisite frosting butterflies. French pastry culture is alive and well in Saigon. I couldn’t wait to see what was in our hat box.

After the brunch dishes had been cleared from our and the next round of tea, poured, the waiter re-appeared with a tray that he placed in the middle of our table. A burst of oohs and ahs erupted from my Vietnamese companions. “Moon cake,” exclaimed our host, beaming. “Durian,” he added, though he didn’t need to say so because the faintly musky scent that had arrived at the table with the moon cakes had already betrayed this. [Note to self: write next story “Learning to Love Durian Fruit.”] Our host then waved his upturned hand over the moon cakes, which had been sliced into wedges, each the size of a chocolate truffle, and said: “Please.”

Reluctant to offend, I reached out tentatively and plucked a wedge off the tray. My companions quickly followed suit, then resumed conversation, pausing occasionally to take a sip of tea or a nibble of moon cake, taking care to peel the thin piece of paper off the bottom first. Our host explained that the moon cakes, which were not official moon cakes because it wasn’t mid-Autumn, had come from his favorite Chinese bakery.

I, too, nibbled on my little wedge of moon cake and sipped at my tea. What had tasted dry and dusty before, now tasted rich and complex, a complement to the smoky tea. What had seemed hard and unyielding now seemed pleasingly firm and substantial. Someone made a joke in Vietnamese, and everyone laughed. I didn’t understand the joke, but was beginning to understand moon cakes. I took another wedge.

Mid-Autumn Festival is also known as Family Reunion Festival. I still wonder about those Chinese ladies in their silk jackets rushing off with their pink parcels so many years ago, but now I imagine them in their sitting rooms, surrounded by family, telling jokes, laughing, and enjoying tea and nibbling at moon cakes.

Lori Writer / Heavy Table
Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Last week, I zipped into Safari Express at Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis for a Safari Chicken Wrap, then to Holy Land Deli for some groceries. On my way out, I passed Pham’s Deli and stopped to consider some bubble tea. Next to the cash register were stacks of clear, plastic deli containers, containing two different varieties of moon cake. A handwritten sign exclaimed: “Moon cake, $3.79.”

I forgot all about bubble tea. I had to have some moon cake. “What fillings?” I asked.

“Durian, with mung bean” replied Chef and Co-owner Trung Pham, who is Vietnamese.

“One of each, please.”

Pham’s Deli offers two varieties of moon cakes, both filled with sweetened mung bean and durian paste: a pressed sweetened flour cake and, my favorite, a flaky pastry style.

Pham, whose wife and partner, Katie, is Chinese, says that his wife’s cousins makes Pham Deli’s moon cakes “each season, from an old family recipe.” Homemade moon cakes are labor-intensive, says Pham. “For 180 moon cakes, it took four family members working together an entire day, 10 hours. You have to stir the batter, which has quite a bit of oil, in a wok, with the heat just right. You keep stirring and when the oil leaks out, it’s done. But, it burns easily, so you have to be careful.”

Says Pham: “In the Buddhist religion, prior to eating, you’d set up a mini makeshift prayer area, where you honor your dead family members. You’d put the moon cakes on a shrine, to symbolically share with your ancestors. Moon cakes are served in a family setting or for an informal coffee or tea, sliced into bite-sized, finger foods.” Of the ornate dragon imprint on the pressed moon cake, Pham says: “In Chinese culture, the dragon is always known as what scares away evil spirits.” Pham’s Deli will carry moon cakes through the end of the month. If you would like to buy them in large quantities, Pham recommends that you order ahead.

Other Minneapolis-St. Paul bakeries that will be selling their house-baked moon cakes throughout October are Bravo! Cafe and Bakery on Grand Avenue in St. Paul and Keefer Court Bakery & Cafe on Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis. Bravo’s selection this year is limited. Keefer Court has a broader selection, with filling options including red bean paste, lotus paste, and green (mung) bean paste. Again, if you wish to order in large quantities, you should call ahead.

I paid Pham for my two moon cakes, and hurried off, colliding with the customers waiting for their bubble tea. I couldn’t wait to get home, put on a pot of tea, and share little wedges of moon cakes with my family. If only I had a hat box.

[Trung Pham reminded me that the Taste of Lake Street Festival, featuring 40 vendors, is this Sunday, October 4 at Midtown Global Market. Pham’s Deli will be serving customer favorite sesame chicken and “the best egg rolls in town,” which are lumpia wrappers stuffed Vietnamese-style with vermicelli noodles. Pham’s makes them from scratch, including grinding the chicken. Deep fried, they are “thin, light and crispy.”]


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