Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Mooncakes are SHITE

I had meant to post about this last week, on Tuesday - the day of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival (it's determined by the Chinese lunar calendar, so it wanders around a bit through September and October); but I was taking a 'holiday' from blogging then. Time to catch up, one week on.

Now, I know I've been in a bit of a curmudgeonly mood of late. Let me assure you that I do not by any means wish to suggest that all Chinese food or all Chinese holidays or everything about life in China is SHITE. Far from it. In fact, I think I may kick off a new series of posts here on Froogville devoted to all the things (outside of China) that I consider to be SHITE - there are plenty of those.

Chinese mooncakes, however, definitely are SHITE.

Mooncakes - yue bing - are a key feature of the traditional Mid-Autumn Day holiday here, a special seasonal food to be enjoyed on this one night of the year. Except that, as with hot cross buns at Easter, the 'season' has been greatly extended year by year, so that now mooncakes clutter up the shops for months (Tulsa reported a first sighting in June this year!). Except that the 'tradition' has been thoroughly hijacked by commercialism and is now mostly focused on expensive boxed sets that are exchanged between companies. Except that bloody mooncakes are really not very enjoyable.

A mooncake is actually a pie made of thin shortcrust pastry, about an inch or so deep and two or three inches across, usually round but sometimes square. There are, apparently, a wide variety of different fillings, including some savoury ones (those I might like to try, but I've never come across them). Most of them, however, are SWEET. Most of them are filled with some kind of highly-compressed bean paste that is like a heavy isotope of raw SUGAR. And yet - and this must be one of the most truly astounding of all Chinese cookery's perverse achievements - they somehow still don't taste nice. Well, it's probably more down to the texture than the flavour: these fillings are very hard, very heavy, and slightly waxy - just not appealing at all. And they have a strangely dry, crumbly mouth-feel, not unlike what you imagine eating sand or sawdust might be like. Super-heavy sweetened sawdust, anyone? No, I thought not.

Really, this is not just me being a grouch. I don't know any foreigners here who like mooncakes. In fact, a number of my Chinese friends admit to not really liking them. Come to think of it, I'm not sure that I've ever seen anyone actually eating one (apart from myself, when I was trying one to be polite). It is surely significant that Haagen-Dazs' invention of chocolate-covered ice-cream mooncakes has in the last few years become hugely popular.... with Chinese customers. As I observed a few months ago, the immediate and enormous success of foreign food brands in China (McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut) tends to cast doubt on the attractiveness of the traditional Chinese foods they are displacing.

And yet, despite being virtually inedible and liked by almost no-one, every year billions of new mooncakes are manufactured. Whatever happens to them all? Surely it would take a landfill the size of Mongolia to get rid of them?

The adverse environmental impact of the mooncake phenomenon is perhaps slightly diminished by the extensive re-gifting that goes on. If you receive one of those flashy gift sets on Mid-Autumn Day itself, I think it's highly likely that it has already passed through at least half a dozen other sets of hands (unopened!). I have received scores of these things over the years, but I've always managed to pass them on promptly to somebody else - and they've probably then done the same. I have often suggested it might be fun to introduce a new tradition into the festival of making some mark on these gift boxes (perhaps writing your name and address on them; perhaps just inscribing some good-luck motto in Chinese; perhaps merely carving a small notch on a corner) to create a record of how many times they've been passed from one person to another.

At least the whole wretched business is over for another year now (although there are probably still untold dozens of the things waiting at the office for me). Mooncakes - horrible!

They do look quite pretty, though.


Froog said...

I think one of the things that first disposed me to react so negatively to mooncakes was that I was so unpleasantly surprised by their extreme sweetness on first tasting them.

I fear I had been deceived by their outward appearance into expecting them to be something like a pork pie - one of the few British foods I do sometimes rather miss out here.

(Do they have 'pork pies' in America?? I'm not sure that I've ever seen one, or come across the expression there. Firm shortcrust pastry cylinders filled with a finely minced, spiced pork, compressed into a kind of solid paté, surrounded by a little meat jelly. Filling, savoury - and robustly portable: an ideal picnic food.)

The Bookseller said...

Pretty? Looks like a cross-section of a diseased colon...

Froog said...

Ah, ever ready with an evocative simile, Mr Bookseller.

What on earth are you doing all the way back here? Are you dutifully reading through all the back issues?? You've always had a bit of an OCD streak, haven't you?