Hello all, and welcome to the first edition of “LEARN WITH LINDSAY: I KNEW I’D PURCHASED THESE SMART-LOOKING GLASSES FOR A REASON.” Maybe we’ll shorten the title, but the main idea is this: from time-to-time I’ll explore a specific aspect of Richmond food culture that I (and perhaps you) need a beginner’s course on. Today’s lesson will be on mooncakes, a pastry used to celebrate the Mid-Autumn festival.
*(For those of you eager-beaver giveaway fiends, you’ll find that info at the bottom of the post!)*
Also known as the “Moon Festival,” this annual celebration is very important in Chinese, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese cultures. It’s a time for legendary stories, family reunions, poetry, and of course, eating. The most recognizable mid-autumn food is the mooncake. Stacey, my teacher for the day (who moved to Richmond from Taiwan when she was 14) told me that mooncakes are the traditional ‘host’ gift during the festival, and that while people don’t necessarily buy a box for themselves, they give them to friends and receive boxes in return. She jokingly said they’re like the Chinese version of fruitcake; everyone partakes in the tradition but no one is generally crazy about them. I, however, am actually a big fan of fruitcake, so perhaps I’d end up eating all the mooncakes, too!
They’re traditionally filled with sweetened lotus seed paste, date paste (as in the photo below), or red bean paste, and usually have one or more sweetened egg yolks inside to represent the full moon. Some have no yolks, while others will have up to 4 inside one cake. Here’s a recipe I found for making them at home.
The dough is rolled flat, filled with a spoonful of paste, gathered into a ball, and pressed into a mold before being baked.
It creates the intricate design on top, which usually indicates the name of the bakery or store that produced it.
Stacey took me to Osaka Supermarket at Yaohan Centre, where there are dozens of mooncake varieties in stock. Hundreds of boxes were stacked in various parts of the store, many at a discount since the festival is almost here.
One thing I found fascinating was the way in which the various packages seemed to appeal to different age brackets, and the attempt to create ‘new and innovative’ versions of the delicacy in order to appeal to younger generations. Stacey said the packaging plays a huge role in mooncake culture, and that each box usually comes with a gift bag for presenting it to your host.
Frozen mooncakes are one of the new-wave varieties, and sort of like ice cream.
We sampled the frozen durian flavour. I’ve been warned about durian’s rather strong smell and flavour, but not wanting to be the picky white girl, I tried it anyways. Upon placing the small piece in my mouth, I became exactly the person I strive NOT to be.
That person whose face contorts in pain over the sulphurous stink in her mouth.
That person whose hands start flapping around in panic because the taste just won’t go away.
That person who repeats “oh my goodness, oh my goodness” (quietly, mind you) from the shock of so horribleness packed into one small bite.
That person who appears PICKY.
If not liking durian makes me a picky person, then I accept defeat. I AM PICKY. With the exception of trying brus at a cheese festival, this was without a doubt the nastiest thing I’ve ever tasted. I can handle unfamiliar textures and strong flavours, but to me this tasted the way a natural hot spring (filled with bathing bodies) smells – like a bunch of completely rotten eggs. I will not be employing the ‘keep trying it til you like it’ technique with durian. I don’t doubt that those who love it, LOVE IT, but I won’t be joining you. Sorry.
But back to the mooncakes! We found big ones, little ones, low-sugar ones, even sweet and savoury ones (they had scallops in XO sauce inside). Some are made locally, but most are imported. I settled on a small box of the date, walnut, and egg yolk flavour. They were tasty, actually less sweet than I expected, and rich from the yolk. Though I love dates, I actually liked the lotus seed version I tried better. The exterior dough is softer than it appears, and all you really need is one or two bites. They were good, but I won’t be scrambling to buy up the super-discounted ones on Monday!
After my mooncake lesson, we walked around the enormous store; Osaka originally sold Japanese food, but now caters to Richmond’s Chinese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Thai, and Korean residents as well. Stacey pointed to the condiments aisle as an example of this; the chili sauce section is huge, with shelf after shelf offering various cuisine’s versions of the spicy sauce. There’s something for everyone.
Osaka also has an entire side of the store dedicated to quick inexpensive food to go. There’s pre-packaged sushi (though you can also order it fresh),
dim sum and steamed buns, a deli section, hot food, and Stacey’s favourite, the “Night Market” section. For lunch, she suggested I try a sticky rice roll, which is a popular street food in parts of China and Taiwan, and is usually eaten for breakfast.
I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, but I watched as the lady prepared the roll; she took scoops of sticky rice (there’s both red and white) from a big wooden steamer, and spread it out in a thin circle on a piece of plastic wrap. Then she laid the fillings over the rice, in a neat pile that ran lengthwise across the circle’s diameter. The traditional fillings included a skinny Chinese doughnut, pickled vegetables, rousung (a light pork condiment), and sauteed snow cabbage. With the fillings assembled, she used the plastic and a piece of cloth beneath it to roll the sheet of rice around the fillings, similar to the way sushi chefs use a bamboo mat to bring a roll of sushi together. She squeezed and packed it all into a burrito-like shape, wrapped it in plastic and handed it over, a weighty lunch that cost just $3.29. I went with Stacey’s suggestion of the traditional fillings, but there were others to choose from including duck, Chinese sausage, various vegetables, and bean curd. It would be very easy to request a vegetarian, or even a vegan version. Because they’re usually served with cold soy milk, I got that too.
Now, how to describe such an incredibly awesome meal!? The sticky rice held it all together like a tortilla, and the fillings were all at once crunchy, salty, sweet, and soft.
It was like a dim sum burrito.
A giant Chinese sushi roll.
A torpedo of Asian flavour.
A hand-held tribute to street food goodness.
And did I mention it was only $3.29? I loved it. Absolutely loved it.
To everyone celebrating the moon festival this weekend, have a wonderful time. For those of you who are new to this tradition, I hope you’ve been able to take something away from this little mooncake tutorial. I sure learned a lot, so thank you to Stacey for being my teacher! You deserve a big, red, shiny apple, or if you prefer, a durian. Just please make sure I’m several (hundred) kilometres away before cutting into it.
And now, it’s giveaway time!
I want to thank you for sticking with me through the last 110+ days. How am I going to do that? By sharing 5 of my favourite experiences!
Each day for 5 days (starting tomorrow, Saturday) watch my twitter account @365richmond for a daily question. Retweet with the answer for your chance to win a $25 Gift Card to one of my favourite Richmond experiences.
A few things to note:
*The winner will be chosen by random
*The winner must be following @365richmond and respond to a Direct Message within 96 hours of posting
*Finally, for those of you not in Twitter, there’ll be opportunities for you to win, too! Keep an eye out for more Richmond eat-opportunities in the very near future.
Thanks all, and GOOD LUCK TWEEPS!
Cash and cards accepted
Vegetarian options available