Hutong Jiemei is a Radii column in which sisters Krista and Sophia Pederson — Tulsa natives who’ve been in China for a decade each — navigate life in today’s Beijing. “Hutong” is the name of the city’s traditional alleys, where they share an apartment; “jiemei” is Chinese for sisters.
The first sign of Autumn in the US is arguably the arrival of Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte. In China, the equivalent is the appearance of mooncakes on the market.
Mooncakes are traditionally eaten around the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival. This festival has been around since before the 1st Century AD, and was first documented in 420 AD during the Song Dynasty.
Mid-Autumn Festival is based on a mythical story about a famous archer, Houyi, and his beautiful wife, Chang’E. Houyi is given an elixir of immortality, but Chang’E somehow ends up drinking it instead (go women!). As soon as she imbibes, she floats up to the heavens to be an immortal goddess. Every year on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (in 2017, that’s today), Houyi sits under the full moon and pays homage to his wife, from whom he is eternally separated. You can read more about this story here.
Mooncake lore (source)
Mooncakes appear somewhat later, around the time of the Yuan Dynasty, the time of the Mongolian Empire. This is where the mooncakes really shine. Some Han Chinese were upset about Mongolian rule, and wanted to overthrow the government. But, as governments do, the Yuan leadership monitored these rabble-rousers closely, making it hard to spread information about when and where to attack. Instead of sending paper in envelops, the rebels cleverly baked their messages inside mooncakes. They outmaneuvered the Mongolians and overthrew the Yuan Dynasty, allowing for the Ming Dynasty to storm on in. More on that here.
In case you were wondering, Mongolians do not celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival.
Now, to the meat of the matter: the mooncakes. Traditionally, mooncakes are like a thick pastry on the outside with either sweet red bean or lotus seed paste on the inside. Special bonus points if there are one or two salty egg yolks in the midst.
But now, China is modern. China is international, China is global. These days, there are all sorts of mooncakes, and everyone from luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Tiffany, to Starbucks, to local bakeries and even organic dog food companies are getting in on the action. There are probably thousands of different types of mooncakes now, but we focused on a mere 20 to give you the lay of the land today. Here’s our guide:
A traditional mooncake. We started with this to set the base for expectations. Comments included: Salty, sweet, — wait, can I have some water? Our local Chinese taster pointed out that this has a “a mix of wet and dry” textures. This one was exactly as expected. Very mooncake.
This one was a fun twist on the traditional mooncake. We thought it tasted like Almond Joy candies without the chocolate or almond. Generally a crowd pleaser; seconds were requested.
This one was green inside, with specks in the filling. It had a minty, earthy smell, and tasted fishy, sweet, with crunchy little seeds. No seconds requested. Not worthwhile.
This one had a mocha-type middle, which Sophia argued was a nod to the salty egg yolk texture of a normal mooncake. Given that most mooncakes have a squishy inside, Krista disagreed. Sophia thought it smelled like sushi. Slightly healthy tasting. Krista liked the savory spin on a mooncake. Sophia does not like sushi and gave it a pass.
Looks like a pie, but the pastry was more pound cake-like in texture. Tastes like every other Weiduomei pastry. Somewhat buttery in flavor, but with a heavy aftertaste. The filling looked more like blueberry filling, so was confusing. Not bad, but not great.
Also looks like a pie, with the pound cake-like texture. The filling was hard inside, but delicious like Nutella. Overall it tasted like stale bread with Ferrero Rocher filling. Not bad, but no one went for seconds.
Looks like a French custard. Same crust as the other two Weiduomei mooncake pies. Smells like string cheese. Tastes like a mix between string cheese and a cream cheese pastry. Sophia went for hesitant seconds.
Very mod looking. The filling tasted a little like lemon curd and was very refreshing, especially compared to the French-style buttery pies, but had a play-doh aftertaste. The texture was also like play-doh. This mooncake was aesthetically pleasing in a retro way. But our one comment is, “Where’s the cheese?”
Ice-Crust is a new trend in mooncakes. The crust is translucent and made from rice or other lighter flours. This mooncake ice-crust was more stiff than expected. We were nervous, because durian normally has a strong flavor. But we actually felt this mooncake was for the faint at heart — for those who want to dip a toe in durian but not go knee-deep. Sophia: It does not smell like durian at all. Krista: Smells like durian. No seconds here. Not even amongst the durian lovers in the crowd. In trying to please everyone, it pleased no one.
This looked like a pumpkin pie, but was not your mother’s pumpkin pie. More matte than the other mooncakes, probably because there was less grease. Smelled like a graham cracker. The mooncake was heavy-handed on the oats; it sucks the moisture out of your mouth. The pumpkin filling was also very dry. Sophia though it was like a dry, less grainy Nutri-grain bar (Krista disagreed, and would like to point out that Sophia has not had a Nutri-Grain bar in over 10 years). Needs a good soaking in oil.
This one indeed had a gooey center. The flavor was like sugary eggs with a clay and chemical aftertaste. No seconds needed.
This was a frozen-yogurt mooncake in the shape of a star. Our initial testing unit failed due to over-exposure:
The freshly frozen sample tasted like Japanese yogurt brand Yakult, with actual chunks of frozen strawberry. Everyone had seconds all around. The ice-crust tasted like mochi; Krista thought it was a little sweet.
Looks like an ice cream with the cone on the outside. Tastes like pralines and cream ice cream. Everyone liked this one. Light and refreshing. White chocolate lining. Delicious, and seconds for everyone.
This one had a red bean surprise filling; Sophia was disappointed. Sophia tried it. Sophia loved it, asked for seconds, and said “yes” to this one. Krista declined seconds. Sophia enjoyed the nut topping.
We enlisted dogs to help us for this one:
Majiang was a fan. Tiny Rick approved. Seconds requested.
This one tastes like instant coffee with sugar and milk, and has an ashy aftertaste. No one requested seconds. We found the packaging pleasing since it actually seals the mooncake. Also points for the design of the mooncake.
Smaller than the other mooncakes, very yellow. Egg custard. No bad aftertaste; very thick. Almost seconds worthy. Hearty.
Smells like coffee here. The flavor is as if you took some coffee grounds and mixed them with sugar and clay. Chemical aftertaste. We are getting tired of mooncakes.
Traditional crust with a gooey eggy filling. Thick egg aftertaste. Chemical aftertaste. Some loved it, some hated it.
Return of the classics. Very classic. No preservative taste. For yolk lovers. Egg Egg Egg Egg Egg.
Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! If you’re enjoying mooncakes at home, here’s a handy calorie guide:
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