I have a very strange memory of moon cakes.
My country doesn’t strictly celebrate traditional Chinese festivals, unless of course you go to big Chinatowns and Chinese-populated neighborhoods. Nowadays, the custom of eating these yummy pastries has become more common than it was when I was a kid.
One day back in the late 1990s, my mother bought a big circular pastry, which I didn’t know was a moon cake then. It was so huge that it resembled a 12-inch caramel cake – but a dry one. I asked my mom what the celebration was for; she just said there’s a Chinese festival, which even she didn’t know much about. Anyway, I felt like somehow we were going back to our Chinese roots, if there’s anything left.
I didn’t like the texture of that moon cake, to be honest. No, I wasn’t a big fan of moon cakes. A couple of days after, my classmates brought little moon cakes to celebrate a festival that many of us didn’t have any connection with. But that’s not the strangest part yet…
So there was an urban legend of some sort about moon cakes. According to that story, there was a popular pastry store somewhere in Manila which sold moon cakes stuffed with “sweet newspapers”, and siopao (an alliteration of xiaolongbao, aka baozi or stuffed buns) filled with cat meat. Yes, it’s an urban legend so widely known that I grew up with a certain disgust of moon cake and siopao. My older brother and sister often joked when my parents bought this food, saying we should stop eating crap.
But then, that changed when I came to Beijing. It’s a whole new world of moon cakes, siopao and siomai (our version of jiaozi or dumplings), and everything Chinese – all legit, I should say. And then I slowly understood the “logic” behind the silly urban legend – the filling must have something to do with it. The usual flavors are dark red mung beans or gray sesame seeds, which look like the colors of tabloids.
Last year during the Mid-Autumn Festival, I munched on the flavored moon cakes I collected, just like a kid who’s happy to get candy. I felt like Beijing liberated me from the terrorizing thought that moon cakes were just a bland and dry-looking caramel cake, or even filled with newspapers!
In my former company, it was a tradition to give moon cakes to employees. So the week before the Mid-Autumn Festival, I found our office full of big boxes with packaged moon cakes, enough to make us lunatics for a week. My supervisor, a middle-aged Chinese-American lady, brought a plastic bag full of moon cakes of many sizes, the biggest of which she gave to me because she knew I was such a glutton. (Oh I miss her so much!)
Before I wrote this article, my colleague Tom shared with us a box of moon cakes. I got the brown one, hoping that it was chocolate-flavored, but I was wrong. It tasted something like a prune. My colleagues Kyle and Mary-Kate said it was made of nuts and sesame seeds. Good enough, as long as I don’t get anything newspaper-flavored!