Making Chinese Moon Cakes with “A Tiger in the Kitchen”
Monday, September 12 marks the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, a celebration of the harvest for Chinese around the world, as well as many other Asian cultures. It's a holiday rooted in folklore and history, but for many Chinese Americans, it's all about the moon cakes.
In my experience, these dense, sweet pastries come from a tin or a Chinese bakery. I don’t know any Chinese Americans who make them from scratch anymore—they are intricate, labor intensive, and who has the time?
Then I met Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, author of the book A Tiger in the Kitchen A Memoir of Food and Family and the blog of the same name. In her book, Tan – a former Wall Street Journal reporter -- chronicles her year-long journey to get back in touch with her Singaporean Chinese heritage by learning how to make the traditional recipes of her aunts and grandmothers.
During that year, she flew from her home in New York to Singapore for all the major cultural holidays, including the Moon Festival.
I caught up with Cheryl on the phone last week to talk about her experience. Here are some highlights of our conversation.
Tell me about your background and how the idea for A Tiger in the Kitchen came about?
It wasn’t until my 30s that I started cooking. I resisted learning how to cook because it was something my grandmothers did. I realized with great regret that I never learned how to make the food I loved when I was growing up.
You’re lucky to have relatives that know how to make these foods, because for a lot of families these traditions faded away in our parents’ generation. Nobody I know makes their own moon cakes (or pineapple tarts)!
In my family, my paternal grandmother was such a great cook. She made thousands of pineapple tarts each Chinese New Year and my aunts kept it going. My family makes moon cakes, too, with a softer skin and scented with pandan leaves. It’s as much the activity as the people who’ve been receiving the moon cakes that kept it going.
It seems like the lessons of your experience are two-fold. You learned both about the cooking of the dishes and about your family history.
When you’re in the kitchen waiting for things to steam, that’s when people tell the best stories. It wasn’t until I was in the kitchen doing these things, that I realized the women in my family were really strong. They kept the family together through opium addictions, multiple wives. History tends to tell the story of men. Food is a strong way to tell the story of women. Their stories were important, too.
What’s your advice to people who want to start preserving their culinary traditions?
I urge everyone – if you have people in your families who keep the recipes – make these foods with them. Every family has a different way of making things. It's not a uniquely Asian thing.
Aunty Khar Moi’s Snow-Skin Mooncakes
Recipe is from A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family
For filling, you’ll need a 3 lb bag of lotus-seed paste. If you can't find this in your grocery store, you can use the sweet bean paste. (Recipe below.)
Recipe makes 60 small mooncakes
Measure out 60 25 gram balls of lotus-seed paste filling and set aside. Using a standmixer, mix together three kinds of flour and confectioner’s sugar. Then add shortening and gradually mix in pandan water. Mix until the dough is tacky but not sticky. Next, add a few drops of green food coloring and mix well.
Divide dough into balls weighing 250 grams each. Roll out each ball into a flat circle, place a ball of lotus-seed paste in the center, turn it over and stretch out the skin and seal it so the paste is entirely covered.
Place ball of dough and paste into a small mooncake mold and use your palm to smooth it out. Tap mooncake mold on the table to loosen and remove the mooncake.
Mooncakes should be stored in the refrigerator. If you’re planning on eating them after one week, store them in the freezer.
Chef Pichet Ong's Red Bean Paste Recipe
Drain red beans, transfer to pot. Add sugar, salt and rum and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is very dry and sticking to the pot. (About 25 to 30 minutes.)
After the mixture has cooled in the pot, transfer it to a food processor. Purée with oil -- adding it very gradually -- until very smooth. Use more oil if necessary. Pass through a sieve if desired.
Maybe I'll try this moon cake recipe over the weekend. What food traditions does your family have? Or what do you wish you could have learned from your aunts and grandmothers?