The Case Against the Mooncake

BY CLARISSA TAN
Jul 13, 2010
*Special to asia!

I long for the days when we can all be free of this absurd, pointless, bad-tasting, gruesomely unhealthy and astonishingly wasteful pastry.

There comes a time when you heed a certain call. When the truth inside yourself can no longer remain suppressed, but must everywhere and anywhere be heard, loud and clear, without fear or favour, no matter what the cost. When you must raise a voice of clarity that shines like a beacon in the deepest darkness, regardless of the insults that may be hurled your way – liar, philistine, traitor to your own race, etc. There’s a time to stand and be counted. The time, for me, is now.

I hate the mooncake. With every Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival that arrives, these circular, greasy patties of dough appear, ensconced within mile-high layers of wrapping, attended by furious marketing ploys from roadside stalls, restaurants and hotels alike. I suspect that the mooncake – along with other curiosities such as mango pudding, biscotti and sauerkraut – is the kind of food that loads of people dislike, but are too polite to say so, due to its status as a cultural icon. I, after a long process of inner seeking, no longer have such qualms.

My objections against the mooncake are many and deep.

 

Collective delusion

There are many folktales surrounding the origin of the mooncake. One of the most popular is that secret military messages were inserted into these gooey pellets and passed around among Chinese rebel leaders, leading eventually to the overthrow of the Mongol overlords. Picture, if you will, the conversation that must have taken place between the Mongol emperor and his chief of staff for such a tale to be true:

 

Mongol emperor : Well, what news have you of the rebel front?

Mongol chief of staff : Nothing, your Highness. Everything has suddenly gone quiet. The rebels are fussing about with these little cakes and do not have time to plan an uprising. China’s bravest insurgents, it seems, have taken to the kitchens. They spend an awful lot of time making these cakes, your Highness, disseminating them along the length and breadth of China, breaking them open, checking out what’s inside and then getting unaccountably secretive and excited. In short, nothing to worry about.

Mongol emperor : Oh, ah, well, we’re safe then.

 

Highly implausible, to say the least.

Another popular idea is that the mooncake, or at least the egg yolk inside some varieties of mooncake, resembles the moon.

Here is a photo of a mooncake:

88 Heavy yolk to bear: The salted egg in a mooncake is supposed to remind us of the moon. On another planet. (Photo: Wee Keat)

 

Does that look like the moon to you? If so, what planet are you on?

 

Health

Here is the recipe for mooncakes, after deleting peripheral and common items such as salt, flour and water.

 

Ingredients

For dough:

• Lots and lots of lard

• Masses of sugar

For filling

• Even more lard

• Truckloads of sugar

• A few beans

 

The mooncake is a compact, incredibly potent bar of sugar and fat that is further encased in fat. It is astonishing that the health authorities of government after government across Asia have gone up in arms against fatty local foods, excoriating in turn the dutiful char kway teow, the humble curry puff, the lovely laksa, innocent chicken rice, the blameless bao. But not a word against the mooncake. Why? Why is this brown chunk of blubber so sacrosanct?

 

Save the children

If we cannot save ourselves, then we can at least save our children. How can we live with ourselves if we continue to allow – nay, encourage – them to eat this artery-clogging, heart-stopping confection? How can we, while we limit their visits to McDonalds and educate them on the evils of fast food and candy, continue to shove this calorific, ticking time-bomb into their trusting, pudgy little hands? How can we sleep at night?

 

Taste

The mooncake tastes exactly the way something made up almost entirely of lard and sugar would taste. It doesn’t taste good. Furthermore, somewhere down the centuries, someone thought that along with the lotus seed paste or sweet bean paste, the taste of the mooncake could be improved – yes, improved – by placing a large salted egg yolk in the middle.

Oh, there are people who will go on and on, if you allow them, about how lovely and sweet a mooncake is, and how it’s all about texture, the smoothness of the filling as it goes down one’s oesophagus, and so on. (Well, it’s 90% oil, it ought to be smooth.) Then there are those diehards who point out that mooncakes taste heavenly with coffee, blithely ignoring the fact that the pastry was invented several millennia before arabica was introduced to the Middle Kingdom, and thus could not possibly have been made to go with their Nespresso Grand Cru.

Weirdest of all, are those folks who tell you not to worry, mooncakes come in many flavours nowadays. They come in durian, taro, strawberry, nougat, chocolate, butterscotch, curry, hummus, four-cheese pizza, anything, you name it. This seems a strange argument to me – to promote the mooncake for the fact that it tastes further and further away from a mooncake. It is also very telling – clearly, if the original gâteau had been satisfactory in the first place, there would be no need to keep vastly changing the recipe.

A mooncake that comes in a champagne-flavoured skin (like one I saw recently) with a filling of orange-infused ganache and a soupcon of truffles, may well taste fantastic. It’s just no longer a mooncake.

 

Climate change

With each year that passes, we get even more precious with the packaging and conveyancing of our mooncakes. A mooncake is not considered presentable these days unless it rests on a piece of golden cardboard, then tucked into a clear plastic tray, then placed in a wooden box, which goes into yet another scarlet box, which is tied with a piece of vermillion string, then placed in a rose-coloured plastic bag, to be inserted into a bigger, glossier carryall, the entire thing nestled into a large traditional-style basket, then delivered to your home in a red armoured truck, etc etc.

 

89 Under wraps: A mooncake today is not complete unless it comes in lots of packaging. (Photo: WSC Wong)

 

 

clarissa tanClarissa is a journalist who focuses on travel and the arts. As a desperately hopeful author, she writes short stories and is working on a novel. Clarissa won the Spectator’s final Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing.

Contact Clarissa

www.clarissa-tan.com