Mid-Autumn Festival: Time for Mooncakes

Plate of assorted mooncakes.

Jim ThurmanPlate of assorted mooncakes.

Today marks the Mid-Autumn or Moon Festival, an important holiday in China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and the time of mooncakes. Over the past few weeks in the San Gabriel Valley, bakeries have been busy cranking out tray after tray of mooncakes, with many of the buildings festooned with colorful banners announcing the holiday date and touting their mooncakes. Meanwhile, the aisles of Asian supermarkets have been filled with tables of boxed mooncakes as ladies in booths serve up samples of different brands and types.

What exactly are mooncakes? They're small pastries, usually round or square, that feature a thin crust and a dense, thick filling. The most traditional are filled with lotus seed paste and the yolk of a salted duck egg (representing the moon), but the varieties of fillings and types is astonishingly large. Sweetened red bean, sweetened mung bean and red date (jujube) are other common fillings. Sweet being a relative term, as per most Chinese desserts, the sweetness is mild. Savory fillings, such as pork, and more modern fillings like taro, pineapple or walnuts can also be found.

Variations differ from province to province, and even city to city, with every place adding their own unique touches. For example, Beijing, Cantonese and Taiwanese are just a few of the regional styles. Crusts can be chewy, flaky or tender, depending on the region. Vietnamese mooncakes, with additional fillings, such as winter melon or durian, can also be found at Vietnamese bakeries in the area as well as at some supermarkets, like the Hawaii Supermarket.

Cross section of traditional style mooncake (lotus seed paste & duck egg yolk).

Jim ThurmanCross section of traditional style mooncake (lotus seed paste & duck egg yolk).

Mooncakes are given to friends, family members, relatives and business clients, hence the preponderance of boxes at the markets. Traditionally, they are served in small wedges, like a cake, and accompanied with tea. Mooncakes can range in size and price as well, with elaborate boxes/tins going for more than $40. Some of the more elaborate mooncakes feature double or even four yolks, the latter representing each phase of the moon. We'd love to give you details about higher end mooncakes, but we're not paid enough, so we'll tell you about mooncakes on the cheap instead.

Aisles of mooncakes, Hawaii Supermarket, San Gabriel.

Jim ThurmanAisles of mooncakes, Hawaii Supermarket, San Gabriel.

I Fu Tang Bakery has minis for $2.50 apiece, featuring fillings of green tea, smashed date (jujube), mashed bean, pineapple or five elements. Five Elements is another common mooncake filling, consisting of a paste combining five different nuts and seeds. At one of the large supermarkets, the cheapest box will run about $14, and the prices go up from there, depending on the number of cakes and the filling. Chinese general merchandiser Tak Shing Hong/T.S. Emporium, with two locations in Monterey Park and one in Rowland Heights, is the place to go to find imported boxes. It is also worth noting that the recently opened 85°C Bakery-Café in Hacienda Heights sold out of their mooncake gift boxes weeks ago. For mooncakes at their cheapest, look for discounts on boxes at any of the large Chinese supermarkets in the SGV beginning perhaps as soon as tomorrow.

I Fu Tang Bakery: 1611 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 288-8007.

17861 A Colima Rd., City of Industry, (626) 581-0888.