Mooncakes and Chinese brands

The Mid-Autumn Festival is on September 28 this year. Joy of joys! Last week, I got a Sei Hei (Four Happiness) box of Wing Wah mooncakes at the Orient Market in Oakland Chinatown. It includes one each of lotus paste with double yolk, white lotus paste with double yolk, red bean paste with double yolk and Ng Yan.

The Mid-Autumn festival is most closely identified with mooncakes. They are rounded square, about the size of a bar of bath soap, fairly dense, and come four to a box, about $15 – $20 per box. They are filled with typical Chinese desert fillings like lotus seed paste and red bean paste. Salted egg yolks are a popular inclusion. Ng Yan (Five Virtues) is a savory nutty fruitcake version which my mom likes. When we were in Dunhuang, I also had them with strawberry paste, and pineapple paste, but they weren’t very good. And in Thailand, you get them with what else …durian paste.

Back in the early 80’s, there was a Chinese restaurant called Golden Dragon in Bangkok. They eventually closed down, in spite of offering good food, because they didn’t have enough parking. However once a year, they would open for mooncake season. Since it was close to our house, people who came to visit would stop there and buy a box for us. And because they didn’t want to look cheap, they would buy the mooncakes with more egg yolks. (Mooncakes can come in the zero, single, double or even triple egg yolk version. The more egg yolks, the more expensive) This made my step-mom happy, because she liked the yolks. I didn’t like the taste and texture of the yolks, and my dad had given up eating yolks for health reasons. So we’d have to go out and buy ourselves a box of yolkless mooncakes anyway.

According to my step-mom’s family, the best way to enjoy mooncakes is to brew a pot of strong Chinese tea, and cut the mooncake into tiny slices. 16 is doable, but 32 is probably better. They could spend the entire afternoon each working their way through an entire mooncake, washed down with tea. Mooncake is not too sweet, but it is rich, and even a bit greasy; you do need tea for balance.

Most of the time when you buy a box of four mooncakes, they all come in the same flavor. But I like the variety of lotus seed and red bean pastes. Joe likes the yolks, I don’t. My mom likes Ng Yan. It would be too much to buy four boxes, where you’d end up with 16 mooncakes. You could buy individual cakes and mix and match from local bakeries, but I’m partial to the Wing Wah brand from Hong Kong. Now that Wing Wah has marketed the Sei Hei: Joe, my mom and I are happy campers. I just have to pick around the yolky bits

The yolks are not always in the center. The first cut, if it lands on the yolk, will tell you which direction to slice for yolkless quadrants. Otherwise you’re stuck with yolk excavation. Mooncake archeaology, hah! Unlike chocolates with unknown centers, you’ll know if a mooncake has a yolk, you just don’t know where. Maybe somewhere someone has adapted a bonbon corer (for sampling and identifying the centers) for hunting yolks in mooncakes.

When you buy a box of mooncakes of a specific brand, the store also bags them in a special bag they get from the mooncake manufacturer. I’m not sure why this is. But sometimes, they even give you a paper lantern (Lanterns are the other big thing associated with the Mid Autumn festival. Traditionally kids would get lanterns in different shapes and sizes, light a candle in them and walk around in processions.)

So I’m picky about brands of Chinese mooncake. I’m also picky about soybean milk: my favourite brand of soy bean milk in the fresh/locally produced category is Fong Kee. Unfortunately, they only seem to carry it in the East Bay. I haven’t found it in the South Bay since I moved down here. So I only get it when I happen to be in Oakland Chinatown.

My mom-in-law, Marilyn, is also particular about the brands of various foods she eats. And some of them are becoming harder to find, as the larger suburban Asian stores like Ranch 99 don’t carry them. You have to go to the mom-and-pop stores in the original Chinatowns to find them.

Chili sauce has to be Lan Chi (which used to be Made in ROC, but now they can manufacture it in the PRC, thank god for capitalism!) Joe and his sister made a quest for them in the Richmond, and when found, Linda stocked up on 14 bottles to lug onto her flight home. In their household, it’s eaten with every noodle dish.

More recently, Marilyn actually called us up, because “you guys are smart and have good ideas.” Her dilemma? Her favourite brand of barleygreen (it’s like a powdered concoction of barley, brown rice, kelp and other nutrients) was no longer going to be carried by her regular distributor, and she didn’t know where to find another source for it. Apparently it’s not sold at bricks and mortar health food stores. It’s something she’s been drinking everyday for breakfast for at least ten years, and she was down to her last bottle. We did some sleuthing on the internet and ordered her some, since she’s not plugged in.

Then it was the Chinese sausages. Marilyn was looking for the Wong Sheung Wong brand. I pricked up my ears and took note of the name: my mom-in-law is a killer cook, and she uses nothing but the best ingredients. Joe and I had once ran out of Chinese sausage, so we just picked a brand at random at the store for making won ton*, which we regretted dearly. They look like “leprous penises”, as described in Timothy Mo’s “The Monkey King.” They are usually much tastier, unless you get a bad brand (like we did), and then they can taste as bad as, well, leprous penises.

(*By the way, putting Chinese sausage into the wonton mix is a Toishan thing. Orthodox Cantonese keep it purely to shrimp and pork.)

“Wong Sheung Wong is made in Canada, and it’s also labeled as Marque King,” Marilyn told me. In general, “made in Canada” Chinese sausages are pretty well regarded. Since I was in Canada anyway (albeit, in Victoria, not Vancouver) I thought I’d try looking for her. In all four markets in Victoria’s movie-set of a Chinatown, I found the Wong Sheung Wong brand of Chinese sausages in the last market, but it was made in the USA. I asked the cashier about the Canuck version of Wong Sheung Wong? “No it’s an American brand,” she insisted. Hmm, maybe the Canadian manufacturers moved to south? I bought two packets just in case. The irony of reimporting an American product home from Canada! “You might also try Wing Wing brand, it’s made in Canada and it’s pretty good.” I took two of those also for good measure.

When I wandered into Orient Market for my mooncakes, I found the Canadian Wong Sheung Wong (confirmed by the Marque King on the packaging). And the Canadian Wing Wing. I got some for my mom-in-law and for ourselves.

The San Jose Mercury ran a taste-test comparison of various brands of Chinese mooncakes in their Wednesday food section last week. Woohoo, a quintessentially Chinese food gets Consumer Reports treatment in a mainstream newspaper! (I should point out that the Mid-Autumn festival is also celebrated amongst the sizable Vietnamese community in San Jose). But maybe the San Jose Mercury can continue along this vein and taste test Chinese sausages.

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