Grocery Ninja: Mooncakes and the Mid-Autumn Festival

The Grocery Ninja leaves no aisle unexplored, no jar unopened, no produce untasted. Creep along with her below, and read her past market missions here.

There's a rad moon on the rise.
les enfants terribles would be seen and not heard?

In my family, the aunts and uncles would tell us 15 rascally cousins stories that, in hindsight, were calculated to keep us as still and quiet as possible.

Tomorrow, on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, Chinese families around the world celebrate the second biggest festival in our culture after New Year—the Mid-Autumn Festival. Also called the Mooncake Festival or the Lantern Festival, folklore says the moon will be at its fullest and brightest, symbolizing reunion and abundance.

Growing up, our group of girl cousins were told that the Moon Goddess Chang E would powder her face so as to be at her most beautiful on that night. Being a deity, the powder that falls from her puff would bless young maidens with beauty. Hence, we should sit demurely with our faces upturned toward the moon and think "pure thoughts."

I struggled immensely with that. I was a tomboy through and through and could see the boys running off with handmade paper lanterns, candles, and matches (the one day we could play with fire without being whooped)—ostensibly to parade the neighborhood with their artistic creations but really to compete at building the biggest bonfire once out of parental sight.

Also, I could not wrap my mind around why the aunts did not have to participate in the same vapid moon-gazing; at that tender age, I did not know of anyone in greater need of Chang E's magic powder than Second Aunt.

The only consolation for not being able to join the boys in their pyromaniac fun was getting first dibs on festival treats. Sweet, juicy pomelos—king of citrus fruit—are at their prime during the festival. Peeling back the fragrant, green rind yields a lotuslike "flower," which my grandmother would save to boil with herbs for a natural shampoo. Miniature hairy taro—only available during the festival—are steamed, their fluffy insides eaten piping hot with lashings of grated palm sugar. Niu jiao jian, or buffalo horn nut—so called because they are the spitting image of, only in miniature—are hammered open, their white, creamy flesh eagerly pried out and devoured.

My cousins would go gaga over "piglet biscuits," nubby, porcine-shaped pasties with a belly full of red bean paste, fussily packaged in rainbow-hued baskets. But I've always had my eye firmly on the prize: the stacks of mooncakes sitting handsomely on the "adult table." These dense pucks of soft, lard-rich pastry and smooth, unctuous filling would occupy my thoughts for days before. I wondered if anyone would throw caution to the wind and buy the ones that embrace four salty, cholesterol-laden, duck egg yolks. I hoped there wouldn't be too many "hip" new flavors—the ones with smoked plums and coffee last year were foul. Maybe one of the more generous uncles would splash out on Wu Ren, or five-nut mooncakes—roasted almonds, walnuts, olive kernels, watermelon seeds, and sesame seeds, with chunks of salty Yunnan ham thrown in for tasty contrast, all held together in a sticky maltose paste.

There was always something original on the table. Major hotels compete at selling the grandest, priciest, most innovative mooncakes for their executive clientele. Gold leaf, bird's nest, ginseng, mother of pearl, premium XO brandy, Grand Cru Champagne, shark's fin, and even Perigord truffles make an extravagant showing. Both traditional cornerstore bakeries and chic French patisseries join in the (money-making) fun. Even Starbucks gets in on the action these days.

And of course, low-fat, low-sugar alternatives—"mooncakes" made with ice-cream, frozen yogurt, or jelly—cater to the health conscious.

To be fair, some of these new creations can be pretty good, but my heart (and tummy) belong to the humble lotus-paste-with-two-yolk variety. Weighing in at close to 1,000 calories, it's no longer a treat I eat with the same wild abandon I used to, but I'd sooner run a penance marathon after than pick on glorified fro-yo discs! Accompanied by a dainty cup of bitter green tea, to sink your teeth into the tender, nutty brown pastry and sweet, creamy paste is to appreciate why the Mid-Autumn Festival is prime poetry-composition month. (It could, of course, be all the moon-gazing, but who has time to stare at rocks when there's mooncake to wax lyrical over?)