For the A TO Z CHALLENGE, I’m blogging for 26 days in April (except Sundays) based on the alphabet, and my theme is #foodiefiction, inspired mostly by the foods of Singapore. You can find my previous posts here.
Y is for Yue Bing or Mooncake
He always knew when the Mid-Autumn Festival was approaching when the thwock-thwock-thwock, bang-bang-bang began.
His wife always insisted on making mooncakes for the family. A box of baked lotus paste mooncakes for his parents. A box of snowskin red bean paste mooncakes for his sister and her family. And one box each of baked mooncakes and snowskin lotus paste mooncakes for themselves.
He always offered to help. He didn’t mind helping out, he insisted, in fact he liked being able to roll up his sleeves and flour up his hands and help roll out the mooncake skin, or maybe just help with the mooncake moulds and all that knocking and banging? It was hard work, after all.
But no, she refused any help. This was something she had to do by herself. For herself. She insisted. She always told him. I make them. You eat them. And that he did. She refused to eat the mooncakes, except for a tiny taste here and there during the making of the mooncakes, just to make sure everything was tasting the way it should. Sweet, but not too sweet. A faint taste of pandan for the snowskin mooncakes. A soft but firm exterior for the baked mooncakes. And the baked mooncakes had to have that soft sheen from the egg wash.
Commercially made mooncakes often went the way of the unusual these days, from avocado to cheese to peanut butter to green tea mooncakes. He had sampled some of these flavours when colleagues brought them into the office. They all knew that his wife made mooncakes, and always made sure he tried any new mooncakes they had come across. They especially wanted him to try all the lotus paste mooncakes that clients had gifted them with, from the neighbourhood bakery to the six-star hotel. And they always asked, so how? Better than your wife’s or not? He preferred to just grin and keep eating. Mooncake season always meant that he had to add an extra kilometre to his run.
The truth was, he was no mooncake lover. The truth was, he was no connoisseur of food at all. To him, mooncakes were all similar. Oh sure, this bacon one tasted different from that durian one but they were all mooncakes. Whether they were made by his loving and dedicated wife’s tired hands, or by an unknown stranger in a bakery, or by machine in a factory, they tasted all the same to him.
He figured that if mooncakes were available all year round, he would be far better off as no one would be so crazy about them during mid-autumn.
He tried to hint to his wife that she didn’t need to make mooncakes. It was too much work. They could simply pick up a box for his parents and sister at a bakery or a hotel. But she was still at it, for the 19th year running.
It was tradition, she said. It was part of their cultural heritage, she said. It was something for the kids, she said.
At first he thought she meant his sister’s kids, who were still in primary school and who devoured all the mooncakes that his wife made. Then he realized that she must have included Jacob, their son, their boy, who would now be 18 years old. They hadn’t seen him for nearly two years, when he ran away from home. He had loved mooncakes as a little boy, long before he had fallen in with some not-so-good sorts, started skipping school, disappearing for days even. They called his classmates, they called his friends, they searched for him at his usual hangouts, reported it to the police. But Jacob was gone. No one knew where or what had happened.
He had wondered if he had worked too much and wasn’t around enough. He knew his wife blamed herself for not keeping a closer eye on Jacob, for giving him too much freedom, for being preoccupied with her own work. She often sat on Jacob’s bed, looking over his things, which she had refused to pack away. His way of dealing with all this was to run more. It kept him out of the house, it kept him from feeling too angry and too sad.
But one Saturday morning, he heard the thwock thwock sound, and knew that it was mooncake season again. He went into the kitchen where his wife was knocking her old school wooden mooncake moulds on the top, trying to dislodge the mooncake. He placed his hand on hers, took the wooden mould from her, then proceeded to gently but firmly knock the mooncake out of the mould. She started to say something, then stopped. Instead she started rolling out more dough. He continued working with the mooncake mould. Together they made lotus paste snowskin mooncakes, Jacob’s favourite.
My mum used to make mooncakes (she still does sometimes) and I used to help her roll the skin over the lotus paste balls, pop them into the mooncake moulds and do all the banging and thwock-thwocking until they popped out. So I kind of know what I’m talking about here. But I don’t really know much about the fancy new mooncake flavours that are all the rage these days. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, there are a lot of East Asians and Southeast Asians, as in, there are a lot of ethnic Chinese, so mooncakes can be found in Chinese bakeries, Asian supermarkets etc. Even durian mooncakes made in Singapore. But these mooncakes are quite standard, lotus paste, red bean, at the most green tea. I sometimes wonder what a chocolate mooncake or a maple syrup one tastes like. And how I miss snowskin mooncakes! They are hard to find here, and those that I’ve tried are just not right.
In case you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, snowskin mooncakes aren’t baked. The flour is already cooked or fried beforehand, so it’s kind of like eating an edible play dough (it’s essentially cooked glutinuous rice flour, shortening, icing sugar, water and colouring). But you know, something that is actually worth eating – soft, sweet, very delicious. They are meant to be stored in the fridge and served slightly cold, unlike the baked mooncakes which are stored at room temperature and served as is.