IT'S perhaps a good thing that we're not living in ancient China during the Yuen (1271-1368) or Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), when revolutionaries used mooncakes to spread anti-government slogans by hiding tiny slips of paper in them. Imagine trying to stick messages complaining about COE prices into lychee flavoured snowskin mooncakes filled with white chocolate ganache and rose fondant.
In this era of Mid-Autumn Festival confections that offer enough configurations to make a pastry chef's head spin, it's easy to forget the roots of this simple sweet pastry invented originally as an offering to the moon goddess, Chang E. Sung Dynasty (960-1279) poet Su Dongpo also penned an ode to the confection: xiao bing ru jue yue, zhong you su he yi, meaning "a small cake resembling the moon stuffed with sweet filling".
In Singapore, the mooncake arrived with the early Chinese immigrants, namely the Teochews, Hokkiens and Cantonese. Each dialect group has its own version of the mooncake; but what we know as "mooncake" these days is the Cantonese one. Chalk it up to commercial marketing and public taste. The Teochew and Hokkien mooncakes have become so rare that even their own communities don't even know what they are. If you find that the commercial baked mooncakes taste practically the same regardless of where you bought them, one of two things could be at play: one is that most places outsource their mooncakes to central bakers (usually sworn to secrecy) and two, because few bakers still do things the traditional way.
To make the pastry for a traditional Cantonese mooncake, sugar is first converted into syrup and allowed to rest for a year. This makes for more pliable syrup, which is then mixed with flour and lard. After baking, the lard slowly seeps through the skin for days after, resulting in a soft yet resilient texture and a shiny finish. Such pliancy is crucial because it is then moulded and wrapped to paper thinness without any filling showing through (old-timers dictate that the pastry weigh a mere 15g and the filling, around 120g). Next comes the filling, namely mixed nuts or lotus paste.
The latter is particularly tedious to make and in the past, only a copper wok would be used to achieve the necessary golden hue. Also, the temperature and duration of cooking must be precisely calibrated otherwise the paste might burnt and turn dull in colour. The chef also needs to add in oil at different stages that allows the oil to emulsify, and not become separated when the cooking is done. It is said that the acid test of a well-made lotus paste mooncake is when it is cut with a knife: the surface of the paste should be smooth and have a mirror-like sheen. It's hardly any surprise then, that the old guard is dwindling under the crush of commercial suppliers. Still, a handful are bucking the trend, and should be celebrated for their integrity, and of course, enjoyed for the good old-fashioned flavours they lovingly churn out.
Chinatown Tai Chong Kok Confectionery Hue Kee
Blk 122 Bukit Merah Lane 1 #01-62
Alexandra Village Tel: 6270 8994
Blk 5 Banda Street #02-72 Tel: 6223 0456
CHINATOWN Tai Chong Kok Confectionery Hue Kee was founded by Tham Weng Hue in 1991. Mr Tham's two sons, Wing Woh and Wing Cheong, have since joined the business which has been around since Mr Tham's father, Tham Kai Chee, set up a traditional Chinese cake shop in Chinatown in 1935. Today, little has changed in the way they make their mooncakes.
Ingredients are still sourced from the best suppliers, including the prized Xianglian lotus seeds from Hunan and sugar. Processing and cooking is still tedious and labour intensive. Wing Woh pointed at the boiling pot and the wall behind it, which was badly stained. "Look at the wall," he said, adding that the marks were made by splattering bean paste. "It is evidence of the long hours I spent attending to the lava-like paste during cooking, trying not to get burnt!"
A key ingredient is Chinese pine kernel - once de rigueur in mooncake making but now largely forgotten. However, Tai Chong Kok insists on including it for its distinct, delicate taste. The syrup, too, is prepared in the traditional way: cooked and stored for a period of time before being used to make the mooncakes.
Almost 90 per cent of the confectionery's products are still made by hand; however their mooncakes are so popular that the family has resorted to modern technology to meet the demand. Wing Woh, who left an engineering career to join the family business, has introduced a specially designed machine that increases efficiency.
It's not impervious to modern tastes though, which is why it also offers fancy snow skin mooncakes in flavours like champagne truffle and rum raisin.
Poh Guan Cake House
Block 531 Upper Cross Street #01-57 Tel: 6534 0136
YOU can easily miss the Teochew mooncakes without realising it - they look just like extra-large baked pastries. Chan Kim Ho, owner of Poh Guan Cake House explains, "There are three types of mooncakes in Teochew culture: mooncake, yue lao and lao gao." The Teochew mooncake is a white circular biscuit that looks like a moon, and is made of five-spice powder and sugar.
"Yue lao is more elaborate," explains Mr Chan. "The flaky pastry skin comes in either red bean paste, or a savoury filling made of pork, winter melon candy and bean paste." The third is a black cake called lao gao. Lao gao is a soft gluey cake made of glutinous rice and lard mixed with red bean or lotus bean paste.
Poh Guan Cake House was established in 1930 selling Hokkien peanut candy, red bean cakes and lotus cakes. Chan Kim Ho is its present owner. He took over from his father in 1958 and considers himself the gatekeeper of traditional Teochew pastry making. He learned the finer points of bean paste making, which is crucial in Chinese pastry, from two masterchefs when he took over the business. "The ingredients are beans, sugar and lard - that's all," says Mr Chan.
While the ingredients may be few and simple, the art of achieving the right consistency in the paste, and timing in the steps and addition of each ingredient, is a hard-won skill. Mr Chan adds that the paste is prepared and cooked in the kitchen behind the shop. "The final paste should be moist, sweet and melting smooth." And the key difference between Teochew and Hokkien mooncakes? Mr Chan summarises it like this: "We Teochews use a lot of lard and red bean paste in our moon cakes, while the Hokkiens prefer sugar." Whilst the traditional moon cake might appear to be on the wane in popularity, Mr Chan notes with a grin that there's an increase of 300 per cent in sales revenue during every Mid-Autumn period.
Tan Hock Seng Cake Shop
86 Telok Ayer Street Tel: 65331798
THE cake shop that Tan Boon Chai grew up in was founded by his grandfather some 63 years ago. And like his father before him, Mr Tan is determined to preserve the Hokkien style of pastry making as practised by his grandfather.
The Hokkien moon cake looks like a moon in reflection - white surfaced and disc-like - with the Chinese character fu stamped in red on it. It was also known as Scholar Cake, and the various sizes in which it was made was named after the different grades of scholars who passed the Imperial Examination in the feudal era in China. It was the practice for parents to buy these cakes for their children in the hope they would perform well in examinations.
Making the cake is laborious. "Like most traditional shops," Mr Tan explains, "almost every element and step in the process is made in-house. The pastry dough requires thorough mixing until the dough turns pure white. It is then rested to allow the dough to be fully developed." In the past, the filling was made from melon seeds, preserved winter melon, dried tangerine, lard, and sesame seeds. "But the lard is being replaced with peanut oil these days, as consumers are more wary of animal fat," Mr Tan notes with slight regret.
"We also sprinkle sesame seeds at the bottom of the cake before baking," he continues. "These will give out an addictive fragrance while baking."
According to Mr Tan, another Hokkien mooncake that disappeared from Singapore after the Japanese Occupation had a filling made of preserved winter melon and pork. This lost cake was similar to those found in Shanghai and Hangzhou, but wrapped with slightly different pastry skin. On a heartening note, Mr Tan said: "I'm glad to see that my customers have changed. I used to get the older folks, but these days many who buy my cakes are young executives working in Shenton Way."