Glowing white and majestic, the moon is a universal source of wonder and mystique. Whether an orb of Gouda cheese or merely a hunk of magma planted in the heavens, the moon has been a constant inspiration for countless works of art and celebration. Myths and fables about the moon abound, describing its lunar effect on people, eliciting bizarre and uncanny behaviours.
Here in Thailand, the fullest phase of the moon eerily seems to draw a massive assemblage to the island of Koh Phangan, a land where hedonism and profligacy dominate. If Thailand's full moon parties are in any way a testament to the tremendous influence of the moon, its power is rather undeniable. Certainly has nothing to do with Thai whiskey.
Chinese culture hails the moon for reasons unrelated to alcohol and debauchery. Like many agricultural societies, historically, the Chinese regulated their planting and harvesting by the phases of the moon. A festival celebrating the harvest was initiated, and the moon is admired as a symbol of harmony and luck.
The story behind the story
According to traditional Chinese legend, a beautiful girl named Chang E worked in the Jade Emperor's palace in the kingdom of heaven, a place where people lived among immortals. The kingdom was an idyllic place, a place on par with Siam Paragon and limitless credit cards. After accidentally breaking a porcelain jar, Chang E angered the Jade Emperor (a relatively moody fellow), and was banished to Earth to live among the ordinary.
Once there, she was transformed into a member of a poor farming family. As she approached her teenage years, her beauty flourished. She abandoned her childishness and embraced womanhood. No more ancient Chinese braces and pimples. Admiring her beauty from afar, a hunter discovered Chang E viewing herself in the reflection of a pond. The two soon became lovers, a mythological Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
One peculiar day, ten suns rose into the sky rather than one, casting an intense heat across the land. The hunter stepped forward and shot an arrow into the sky, successfully sinking the nine extra suns. Instantly becoming a hero and source of great admiration, he soon married Chang E. The two lived happily, but eventually the hunter grew into a tyrant, ruling with a cruel and oppressive hand. He sought great power and ordered that an elixir be created in order to extend his life. Mortality Viagra, if you will. Chang E came upon it and unknowingly consumed the elixir, enraging her husband. Attempting to flee him, she jumped from the window of her palace bedroom, yet rather than falling, she somehow floated through the sky towards the glowing moon. Today, the Chinese hail the moon and view it at its most full in order to catch a glimpse of the dazzling maiden residing in its light.
A taste of the real thing
Eaten in honour of the Harvest Moon Festival, mooncakes are customary within Thailand and other places with substantial Chinese communities. The puck-shaped Chinese confections are small pastries with a thin crust wrapping a sweet and oily filling. The inside of the dessert bears resemblance to the texture of Play Doh, oddly enough. Within the centre of the pastry are salted egg yolks, representing the shape of the moon. Though peculiar in description, the salty flavour of the egg yolk manages to compliment the sweet outer caking. Traditional mooncakes have an imprint on the top of the crust, signifying the name of the bakery, the Chinese characters for 'harmony', or identifying the flavour.
The crust of the mooncake is created using lard or vegetable oil, and the texture may vary by bakery. A reddish-brown coat is the most common crusting, and delivers a chewy bite. The texture is created from a combination of thick syrup, sugar, flour, and lye, providing a rich taste. A flaky crust, resembling that of Western pastries, is also made by rolling dough in flour that has been stir-fried with oil.
Within the filling of the mooncake lies the real treat, and the flavour combinations are seemingly endless. Lotus seed and red bean paste are traditionally used, and blended together for a luxurious taste. Jujube paste is a sweeter filling, dark in colour and rich with a fruity flavour. A five-kernel filling is something to avoid if you're cursed with a nut allergy. This particular paste is a mishmash of nuts and seeds combined with rock sugar. Watermelon seeds, almonds, pumpkin seeds, peanuts and sesame are blended together for a blast of protein, if you're inclined to rationalise the dessert with supposed nutritious value.
A modern take on mooncakes
A modern wist on the traditional mooncake has emerged in a number of bakeries across Asia. Fillings in these modern cakes stray from traditional ingredients and include an eclectic variety of flavours. From coffee and peanut butter to prune and sweet potato, choose any food imaginable and there is a corresponding mooncake flavour. Cream cheese, tiramisu, green tea, jelly, yogurt, ice cream, durian, champagne, walnut, ham, lychee and ginseng all make the cut and can be discovered within a number of Chinese restaurants around Bangkok.
Whether you're particular to almond or artichoke, bubblegum or banana, chances are there is a mooncake in Bangkok with your name on it. The treats are intended to be shared with friends and family in honour of the moon festival and should never be eaten alone. Abundant in the autumn months, the time for mooncake sampling has already begun, so grab some company to enjoy the little delicacies and hail the moon.