Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Happy Moon Festival!

Living in Hawaii, not only do you get to celebrate all of the "regular" holidays, but everybody celebrates everybody else's holidays too.   Something left over from the old plantation days when you would invite your neighbors to your celebrations.  It's not uncommon for you to be attending a bon dance, even if you aren't Japanese.   Likewise, there are 3 big Chinese holidays celebrated here in Hawaii, Chinese New Year, Ching Ming (where you visit your ancestors graves), and Mid-Autumn Festival (also known as Moon Festival).  

If you aren't familiar, Joong Chau Jeet or  Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated on 8/15 on the Chinese lunar calendar (which puts it late September-early October).  It is the date of the brightest full moon of the year, also called the "harvest moon".  It was primarily a harvest festival, a grand celebration by moonlight to celebrate a successful harvest.  So I guess you could say it's similar in spirit to Thanksgiving. 

It is also a celebration of Serng Ngo, who in Chinese mythology is the beautiful immortal of the moon.  She can be compared to Diana/Artemis in Greco-Roman mythology or Kagura Hime in Japanese mythology.   There are many, many, dissimilar versions of Serng Ngo's story, so it's very difficult to give any definitive version.   The common elements are that she is married to either an emperor or to the famous archer Hou Yi, who shot down 9 suns leaving just one left (again compare to Maui in Hawaiian Mythology).  In some version she loves him, in some version she does not.   So, either by accident, or on purpose, she overdoses on his elixir of immortality.   As a result, she floats to the sky to live forever on the moon.   So in the eyes of romantics,  Joong Chau Jeet, is seen as either the day her husband can see her, or the day she washed that man out of her hair.   She has 2 companions on the moon: an old woodcutter who is constantly cutting down a tree (compare to Sisyphus), and the Jade Rabbit, the rabbit who when encountering the starving Buddha, threw his own body on the fire to feed him, but was instead immortalized on the moon and makes the elixir of immortality.   The image of Serng Ngo and the rabbit are everywhere around this time, and when the Apollo mission made it to the moon, they were even instructed to go looking for her.

Unlike Chinese New Year, which has TONS of little rules and customs that need to be observed, the Moon Festival is comparatively simple.  Eat mooncakes!   Well alright, that oversimplifies it a little.  That's like saying Thanksgiving is about eating turkey.   The point of Moon Festival (like Thanksgiving), is really about family.    My family would go out at night to the patio, hopefully at a time when the moon is visible and not hiding behind the roof, or the mountain, or the trees, or the clouds (it's a little difficult sometimes).   We would have mooncakes, sometimes some bo look (also called jabon or pomelo) from our tree, drink the finest tea (which can be as elaborate as finding the finest wine), and listen to Chinese music or poetry.

When it comes to finding mooncakes (or yuet bang) in Hawaii, you can buy them all over the place.    Royal Garden restaurant in the Ala Moana Hotel makes a nice display of a giant, table sized mooncake, equivalent to 250 regular mooncakes.   They make a very beautiful box of mooncakes that I would love to give to clients.  When I was little, I always used to like to go to Kwong On manapua shop in Kaimuki.   It was the greatest little neighborhood Chinese store, for both manapua and moon cakes.  When my wife (then girlfriend) was away for her 1st year at college, I sent her a box of mooncakes from Kwong On, hoping it would make her feel less homesick.  Well, if you can imagine this cute little girl sitting under the moon, she devoured an entire mooncake in one sitting, they were so good.  Sadly, they also closed, a few years back.  However, if you were to ask me which is the de facto standard for mooncakes in the islands, it would have to be Sing Cheong Yuan bakery in Chinatown (on Maunakea St. right across from the municipal parking).   Originally called Shung Chong Yuein, the original owners closed the shop a few years ago.   However, this time the forces of good won out, and they reopened with new ownership, but the same great bakers.  The original bakery was there as long as I can remember, and every year at Mid-Autumn time their window displays fill with stacks and stacks of locally handmade mooncakes.  It's impossible to miss.   They're also the de facto place to go at Chinese New Year's time when it comes to tong goh (or dried candied fruits).  And if you're Chinese and getting married, they are pretty much THE place to go to get those Chinese wedding cakes for your tea ceremony.  

Besides the local places, you can also pick up boxes of elaborate imported mooncakes from Hong Kong.   As I've mentioned, the Hong Kongese take all Cantonese food and refine it so it is prettier and more intensely flavored.   It's like restaurant cooking vs. grandma home cooking.  So I thought this year, it would be fun to put them head to head.    The locally made, old Cantonese style mooncakes vs. the imported Hong Kong mooncakes, and let my family decide which ones they like better.  

Lotus Seed Mooncakes imported from Hong Kong
First up, the mooncakes from Hong Kong, in this case picked up from Regal Diner, but readily available elsewhere.   The filling that I picked up was the classic leen jee or lotus seed paste, with the salted egg yolk in the center.   As you can see, the Hong Kong cases are very fancy in their presentation, with delicate wording baked on top.

Lotus Seed Mooncakes from Sing Cheong Yuan
To make sure we're comparing apples to apples, I made sure to get the same leen jee yuet bang from Sing Cheong Yuan.  Not quite as elaborate in its presentation, it looks more homestyle (although that may be a pre-judgement on my part).

The verdict in our competition?   Almost unanimously my family all agreed that they liked the Hong Kong one better.   Everyone felt that the Hong Kong one had a creamier filling, and a lighter, flakier crust.   It's really rare that my entire family would agree on something.  So I thought that it must've been pretty definitive.  That is of course, until I compared them myself.   I personally preferred the locally made one from Sing Cheong Yuan.   Is it my local bias coming through?  Maybe.  My family was right, the Hong Kong cakes were creamier.  But to me the filling from Sing Cheong Yuan being denser, yet still moist and flavorful, was something that I could sink my teeth into more.   It's kind of like a chewy cookie or a brownie from Mrs. Fields.   Do you like it more if the brownie is lighter, or do you prefer a heavier, chewier, richer brownie?   I personally prefer the texture of a thick, rich, chewy brownie or mooncake.  I also liked the slightly oilier, spongier, thinner crust to the crisper, thicker, crust on the Hong Kong cakes.   Leave it to me to be the outlier in my family right?

Black Sugar Mochi Mooncakes from Sing Cheong Yuan
Besides the regular mooncakes though, the ones that I usually like better are the bing pei (literally frosty skin) mooncakes, the kind that have a mochi exterior.   These mooncakes are actually quite similar to Japanese  an dango, or azuki bean filled mochi.   My very favorite are the dou sa, or black sugar filled bing pei mooncakes with the salted egg yolk in the middle.    Not everyone likes that salted egg yolk, but I love the contrast of the saltiness with the sweetness of the black sugar.   The egg is almost like fine hard cheese, like a parmesean, adding that sharp, strong taste.   You don't really find the bing pei style that much outside of Hawaii.   But it is that crossover of Japanese and Chinese taste that makes it so popular in Hawaii.

Harvest Moon 2009
Moon Festival is something I look forward to every year.   It's such a simple pleasure, just sitting eating mooncakes and tea, watching the moon with my family.   But it is a treasured moment that I never want to miss.


  1. actually, i'm guessing you like the other one cause it also probably contains more butter/fat. the problem with that is it holds back the flavor of the other ingredients.

  2. what? kwong on closed?? aw, man!

    i thought chichi dango was specifically the plain sweet mochi that has no filling. the one with the azuki beans has another name that i can't remember.

  3. You're right, it's not chichi dango. It's an dango. It's corrected in the post.