Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Mon Hei, $1.40
The Chinese Mid-Autumn festival has its roots in an ancient imperial practice of making special offerings to the moon every autumn. In the year 420, the date for observing this festival was set as the 15th day of the 8th lunar month.
Pastries known as "mooncakes" are now so strongly associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival that it is perhaps better known by the name "Mooncake Festival". Friends and family share the rich golden pastries when they gather to admire the moon.
A typical mooncake is round or rectangular, with a pastry crust baked golden and shining with oil. On top there is an embossed design, usually auspicious characters or a commercial logo framed by a decorative border. The most traditional fillings are dense, rich pastes based on ingredients such as lotus seeds, jujube fruit, or red beans. The salted yolk of a hard-boiled duck egg is often baked into the center; when the pastry is sliced open, the yellow yolk appears like the moon emerging from clouds.
Changing tastes and the tradition of giving mooncakes to clients and business associates have spurred ongoing innovation and experimentation. It is now possible to find modern mooncakes made with almost any kind of novel or luxury ingredient, or suitable for any type of dietary restriction.
Like so many sweets that began as special occasion treats, mooncakes are now available year-round. In the the weeks leading up to the Autumn Festival, they seem to be everywhere; a brightly colored mooncake gift bag or box becomes a de rigeur accessory in certain parts of town. I bypassed the glitzier mass-produced and packaged mooncakes in favor of Mon Hei, the oldest Chinese bakery in Seattle's International District. At Mon Hei, several sizes of mooncake are availble with either lotus seed or bean paste filling, and either eggless or with up to 3 yolks inside.