Other than the Lunar New Year, the most eagerly anticipated festival for the Chinese must be the Mid-Autumn Festival, a thanksgiving celebration that falls in September.
Popularly linked to the legend of Chang er, the beautiful goddess of immortality who resides on the moon, on this day families get together and children parade their colourful lanterns or light the ground with candles, mirroring the stars above as a full moon illuminates the night sky. And of course, no Mid-Autumn Festival would be complete without the tradition of consuming that salty-sweet, sticky, oh-so-decadent pastry known as mooncake. A majority of mooncakes purchased are also gifted to family, friends, and business associates as a way to nurture guanxi (social capital).
Traditionally, mooncakes comprise golden-brown buttery pastry encasing a heavy, sticky filling made from lotus seeds (lin yong), red beans (hung tao) or green beans (cheng tao), with a whole egg yolk embedded in the middle. In some communities, traditional versions contain four egg yolks, representing the four phases of the moon. Unsurprisingly, mooncakes are also calorie bombs – a single mooncake may contain upward of 800 calories!
As people become more conscious of the health risks associated with sweet and fatty food, mooncake makers began evolving toward healthier options. Inspired by Japanese mochi and banh deo (Vietnamese mooncake), Hong Kong bakery Taipan came up with the snow skin mooncake in 1989. Enveloped by a delicate ‘snow skin’ made from edible glutinous rice, this mooncake is not baked and is significantly lower in calories.
What started out as a fad has only grown in popularity, for both healthy and practical reasons. “The advantage of snow skin mooncakes is that they’re not baked,” explains Executive Chinese Chef Lam Hock Hin of Hilton Kuala Lumpur. “Since the ingredients won’t melt, chefs can innovate an incredible variety of flavours and ingredients while preserving its look. Your imagination is your limit.”
It is now customary for hotels to outdo each other in the creative stakes by introducing ever more imaginative snow skin mooncake flavours every year. For 2018, Chef Lam has come up with Dragon Blossom, which marries the robust flavours of red dragon fruit and pineapple with a buttery macadamia nut “yolk” for a taste that’s both tropical and decadent. Making this a must-buy, the hotel collaborated with Malaysian fashion designer Khoon Hooi – renowned for his Chinoiserie style – to come up with a stunning embroidered brocade satchel-shaped box that’s a collector’s item on its own merit.
Another popular trend is filling snow skin mooncakes with ice cream as the soft, springy snow skin contrasts well with the icy filling. While ice cream mooncakes are no longer a novelty, Malaysian artisanal ice cream maker Inside Scoop stands out for its whimsical combinations of local flavours and ingredients. Themed Over The Moon, their menu for 2018 features classical flavours such as mint chocolate chip, vanilla bean, and dark chocolate brownies, as well as localised pairings such as durian ice cream with chocolate ganache yolk, and raspberry yogurt and blue pea flower ice cream with raspberry yolk.
The motivation for incorporating mooncakes into Inside Scoop’s menu goes beyond commercial. Inside Scoop co-founder Edmund Tan’s birthday falls on the same month as the Mid-Autumn Festival, so his parents sometimes used mooncakes as his birthday cake. Following in their footsteps, his wife-cum-co-founder Shiew Li used to buy him ice cream mooncakes as a birthday cake. Naturally, when they created their ice cream company, it was a matter of time before the ice cream mooncake was born. “It was the perfect excuse to fuse my favourite dessert with tradition. Mooncakes remind me of happy memories, not just another celebration.”
And who could argue with that? Like ice cream, mooncakes are a good-time dessert, an icon, and a memory Malaysians cherish from their childhood.
**Buy Inside Scoop’s ice cream mooncakes online at insidescoop.ecwid.com or at their outlets at insidescoop.com/my/outlets. RM60 for box of two, RM100 for box of four.
**Buy KL Hilton’s mooncakes at Chynna, Hilton Kuala Lumpur at RM38++ per cake or RM198++ per box of four. Get Khoon Hooi’s – Limited Edition Midnight Bloom series priced at RM198 per box of four, Khoon Hooi’s – Blossom Series priced at RM178 per box of four and a la carte Dragon Blossom mooncake at RM38 per piece.
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