What on earth are . . . . moon cakes?

Moon cakes are probably the most important type of traditional Chinese pastry. However, the period in the year that they are available is short, only a few weeks.

Moon cakes are the typical treat you eat around the Mid Autumn Festival, the first full moon of the Autumn according the lunar calendar.

The bulk of a moon cake consists of the filling, wrapped in a crust of traditional Chinese pastry dough (relying on fat for the texture, rather than yeast or other rising agent). Moon cakes are roughly divided into Northern types and Southern types. The Northern moon cakes are harder and dryer, while the Southern types are softer and moist.

Fillings can be based on lotus paste, bean paste, fruit, nuts, etc. Southern moon cakes can also contain small pieces of ham or other meats and often have a duck egg in the centre. Moon cakes are rich, eating one in the morning can easily count as breakfast as well as lunch. Chinese often cut a moon cake in small pieces.

The moon cake production season starts early, sometimes two months prior to the actual festival. Many traditional bakeries, and even bakeries of Western pastries, usually stop manufacturing other products, directing all man power and resources to the production of moon cakes. About 280,000 mt of moon cakes were produced in China in 2013.

It is big business for suppliers of food ingredients as well. Traders in food ingredients also stock up large quantities of moon cake ingredients and place extensive advertisements in the local media.

Here is a video of producer of moon cake production machines. It is a commercial video, but still gives an interesting insight in the industrial production of moon cakes.

Signature moon cakes

Major hotels and restaurants  have also started noticing the potential of mooncakes as a novel way of reaching out to the market. They have asked their chefs to come up with innovative flavours using unconvential ingredients. Some even experiment with Western ingredients. Here is my pick from the Beijing 2014 season.

  • The mooncakes of the Imperial Palace Restaurant are mainly Chaozhou-style (a cuisine in Guangdong) pastry mooncakes, which are handmade by chefs with more than 10 years’ experience, and are delicious and fresh, with low levels of fat and sugar. The restaurant claims that their products have no additives. In addition to the traditional mooncakes, the restaurant has introduced fillings made from fruit and vegetables, such as cranberry and white gourd.
  • The Westin Beijing Financial Street has packages that mix Western and Chinese flavors such as goose liver, truffle pumpkins and Chinese chestnut.
  • The Shangri-La Hotel in Beijing has 42 fillings at different prices, including some special flavours such as rose with red bean paste. Diabetics can choose low-sugar pumpkin mooncakes, and those who want to keep fit can buy ones containing cereal germs.

Moon cakes can not escape the problems of modern industrial production. Consumers want the products look, feel and taste exactly as the traditional hand made cakes, leaving the manufacturers with the problem to translate that wish into a recipe.

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Formulation issues

Modern moon cake production has a number of problems related to ingredients:

Preservatives

With the increase in the period between production and consumption preservation has become a serious problem. Moon cakes are an ideal environment for the growth of molds, especially the moist Southern style moon cakes. My latest bite of mooncake (Jan. 1, 2015; Jiayuan brand, bean paste filled) contained potassium sorbate and sodium dehydro-acetate.

Until mid 2000, many manufacturers included a small pack of dimethyl fumarate (DMF) with their moon cakes. This preservatives slowly sublimates, preventing the growth of mold. Moreover, DMF did not have to be listed on the packaging as a preservative, because it did not count as an additive. However, the use of DMF for food was prohibited in May 2000. Alternative preservatives are still being tested by the manufacturers. Especially the suppliers of Natamycin are actively promoting their products for the treatment of moon cake surfaces.

A company in Guangdong has developed a special preservative for moon cakes. The longer the shelf life the higher the price is no longer the case with moon cakes. Rules have changed, so have perceptions. The norm now is, the shorter the shelf life the higher the price.

Antioxidants

Traditional Chinese pastry dough is high in fat, creating that typical crumbly texture. This calls for antioxidants to preserve the flavour of the pastry. Recently publications on antioxidants in moon cakes seem to converge on their preference for tea polyphenol as the best solution. It is a natural ingredient and apart from its antioxidant property, it also has a preservative activity and protects the colour of the pastry. An interesting ingredient in this respect is tea, which adds colour, flavour and mouthfeel and also functions as an antioxidant. See my special post on tea as food flavour.

Sweeteners

Moon cakes are supposed to be sweet. However, Chinese consumers are also getting more aware of the problems caused by excessive intake of sucrose. The past few years have seen experiments with alternative sweeteners. A number of manufacturers are already offering moon cakes sweetened with polyols, in particular maltitol and xylitol. Beijing based Daoxiangcun produces ‘maltitol moon cakes’. According to the information on the package, the pastry contains 15% and the filling even 43% maltitol.

Branding

Most moon cakes are still produced on an ad hoc basis, and sold in bulk, without brand. However, a number of brands have started to emerge in recent years. The current top three brands are:

Huamei

Huamei

Produced by the Huamei Food Co., Ltd. In Dongguan (Guangdong), this is not only a noted brand, but also a ‘green food’, the Chinese designation for ecologically friendly foods, one grade below biological foods.

YuanlangRonghua

Yuanlang Ronghua

The producer of this brand, Ronghua Pastry Co., Ltd., is also located in Dongguan, but the mother company is from Hong Kong. This company has been engaged in a fierce legal battle with an entrepreneur from Shandong about the use of the Wingway (the Cantonese pronunciation of Ronghua) for many years. This is yet another proof of the economic importance of moon cakes.

Anqi

Anqi

Anqi Food Co., Ltd. is yet another Guangdong-based company, located in Shenzhen. It was the first to introduce ‘iced moon cakes’ in the Mainland. These are white moon cakes, with a skin made from glutinous rice.

Phantasy shapes

The only limits of what is possible with moon cakes are the limits of ones imagination. Any more or less round shape from dough with any kind of filling can be called a moon cake. The photo of this section shows a bear-shaped and elephant-shaped moon cake. The bear cake has a coffee flavour, while the elephant cake is scented with orange.

MooncakeInnov

Trend 2015 1: medicinal moon cakes

A trend in 2015 is to enrich moon cakes with traditional Chinese medicinal ingredients, like: ginseng, goji berries, or cordyceps (a fungus infected caterpillar). The resulting pastry can then be attributed medicinal functions and, hopefully, be sold at a premium price. This initiative has received mixed reactions from the market. However, whether it catches on or not, it has at least added new colours to the existing range of moon cakes, as shown by this picture.

MedMooncake

Eurasia Consult’s databases include a large number of recipes for generic and innovative moon cakes; and our database of the Chinese food industry includes 121 producers of moon cakes.

Trend 2015 2: weird, weirder, weirdest

The weirdest moon cakes of 2015; resulting from a Chinese Internet election.

  1. Chocolate mooncake with spicy beef filling

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Ten years ago, a Chinese girl was reported to say to a boy, “It’s impossible for us to be together, like chocolate will never be with beef.” Today, it seems that everything is possible.

  1. Sour and spicy mooncake

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The sourness of the mooncake filling is from pickled vegetables and hawthorns. The spiciness is made from a chilli sauce resembling to the famous brand Lao Gan Ma.

  1. Fermented bean curd mooncake

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This is a variant of a kind of pastry made with fermented bean curd popular in Chaoshan, Guangdong province, similar to furu, also reported in an earlier post. The pastry is usually used as a sacrificial offering by local people on the first day and the middle day of each month.

  1. Mooncake with fillings of cream, truffle and goose liver

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Expensive is still fancy in China. The “Louis Vuttion” of mooncakes is made with expensive ingredients of truffle and goose liver. This luxurious mooncake definitely deserves a bite.

6. Mooncake with leek egg filling

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Scrambled egg is a popular filling for Chinese Jiaozi (dumpling). But for the first time, scrambled egg is being used for the traditional Mid-Autumn day dessert.

  1. “Shiren” mooncake

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“Shiren” mooncakes have 10 kinds of nuts, doubling the traditional “Wuren” mooncake with 5 kinds of nuts. It’s four to six times larger than traditional mooncakes, and implies best wishes of “perfect in every respect”.

  1. Mooncake stuffed with braised pork and preserved vegetable in soya sauce

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Braised pork with preserved vegetable in soya sauce, or “meicai kourou” is a famous Chinese dish. The one made this special filling for mooncake must be a super fan of this dish. Like the scramble egg moon cake, this variety is in line with another innovative type of dumpling reported in another post of this blog: dumplings with entire dishes as filling.

  1. Bamboo charcoal mooncake

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This mooncake is made by putting bamboo charcoal powder into the mooncake when baking. It’s said to have the function of absorbing toxins inside our bodies. As reported earlier, the distinction between food and medicine is much smaller in China than in the West.

  1. Instant noodle mooncake

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Putting instant noodles into the traditional mooncake will surely give you a special experience. The mooncakes are also marked with Chinese characters, “Diao Si”, which means “underprivileged losers” in a self-mocking way. Perhaps this refers to the recent decline in the instant noodle market in China.

  1. Mooncakes with bean-taste filling fried with tomatoes

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Moon cakes as ingredients. The canteen of Civil Aviation University of China had put forward a dish which fried mooncake pieces stuffed with sweet bean taste and tomatoes before decorating them with caraway. The dish became a hit on the Internet and is called the weirdest mooncakes.

Trends 2016

No one wants to miss the boat

Virtually any food-related chain in China is offering its own specialty in the shape of moon cakes. This year, Häagen-Dazs is also joining in with ice cream moon cakes.

IcecreamMooncakes

Mooncakes with an academic flavour

Universities around Shanghai have begun competing to offer mooncakes with the most distinctive characteristics in 2016. In addition to traditional fillings such as egg yolk, lotus seed paste, “five kernel,” red bean paste and fresh meat, a variety of new flavors have been introduced, including tiramisu, durian, coffee, ham and beef, purple sweet potato and mushroom. These new flavors offer a real treat for teachers and students alike.

fudanmooncake

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

 

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Hot and savoury: fermented bean chili sauce

Broad bean chili sauce (douban lajiang) is a typical condiment of Sichuan province, known for its tingling spicy cuisine. It is a mixture of fermented broad bean paste and chili paste, with a ratio of either 50:50 or 60:40.

The broad beans are first soaked in clear water and then heated to 80 – 85 ˚C in a 2% sodium hydroxide solution to separate the bean from the peel. The lye is washed off with water.

The beans are then soaked in water again until they are completely saturated, after which they are steamed.

The steamed beans are mixed with wheat flour with a ratio of 1:3 (beans : flour). The mixture is inoculated with 0.15 – 3% of qu, the traditional Chinese mixture of molds, and transferred to the fermentation vessel. The fermentation will heat the mass itself to 40˚C, after which a brine solution on 60 – 65˚C is injected into the mass with ratio of 140 kg of brine solution to 100 kg of mass. This will bring the temperature to approximately 45˚C, which is maintained for about 10 days.

Meanwhile, fresh chili peppers have been pickled with salt and left for three months, after which the mixture has been ground to a paste. The fermented bean paste is mixed with the chili paste and left to ferment for another half a month. A number of condiments can be added to the end product; e.g.: sesame oil, spices, sugar, rice wine, etc.

The single most famous type of broad bean chili paste is from Pixian county in Sichuan. A special company has been established to cash in on its fame, named after the county: Pixian Bean Paste Co., Ltd. The picture accompanying this introduction shows the range of different pastes produced by this company.

Pixian fermented bean paste has received DOC status, like the Jinhua ham introduced earlier in this blog. No manufacturer outside Pixian will be allowed to sell fermented soy bean paste as Pixian fermented bean paste. The local government has established a research centre to improve the production process.

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The following table listing the output of Pixian douban during recent years indicates the success of the DOC status.

DoubanOutput

The following video shows the production process of Pixian douban.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

 

Old Soup – new process – the ultimate Chinese savoury product

If you randomly ask people in the street of any Western city what is the first typically Chinese food that comes to mind, more than 80% will probably mention noodles.

Noodles are indeed China’s favourite snack food. Whenever you feel a pang of hunger, but your next meal is still far ahead, you get yourself a bowl of noodles, from a street vendor, a kiosk type of noodles shop, or another road side cookery.

When you then continue to ask what the respondents know about flavouring those noodles, they will undoubtedly reply that it depends on what you put into it. That can be pieces of meat, fish, and a large array of vegetables and spices.

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That is not untrue. But, what is much less known about professional noodle making in China that the real secret of the cook lies in the broth in which the noodles are cooked. This broth is referred to in Chinese as ‘soup (tang)’.

The apex of noodle soup is referred to as lao tang, or ‘old soup’, in Chinese. Why old? Tradition has it that real noodle makers only once start their kettle. Once the broth is boiling, they just keep throwing in noodles and condiments, which, once done, are scooped into a bowl and served to the customer. Some fresh condiments will be thrown on top if, and the noodles are ready for consumption.

This process will be repeated for each new customer. Day in day out. In theory, the cauldron can hold soup stretching back years. Tall stories go around in China about noodle makers whose broth has not been changed for more than 100 years. They cook just keeps adding water. This is supposed to create an extremely rich broth.

This branch of Chinese cooking has developed a vocabulary of its own. Take e.g. the ‘milky soup (naitang)’. This soup in fact does not use milk as an ingredient. The milky appearance is caused by cooking animal bones for a long time.

As applies to the adaptation of other traditional Chinese foods to modern industrial production, the big challenge to redesign Old Soup in a modern setting is to retain the original flavours and textures, while creating a product that complies with the current strict regulations.

The importance of old broth can be seen at the Food Ingredients China (FIC) trade fair held annually in Shanghai in March. On the floor dedicated to flavour companies, you will see numerous stands offering instant old soup. That may be a contradictio in terminis, but it is also big business. As soon as you enter that floor, you will be welcomed by the intense smell of the (not so) old soup. Stands will have pans boiling on electric cookers ready to serve you various snacks cooked in that broth.

Old soup has already become big business. The leading manufacturer, Lida Food in Henan province, produces almost 80,000 MT p.a.

A lot of old soup R&D is going on in China. E.g., an interesting study by researchers of the Nanjing Research Institute for The Comprehensive Utilization of Wild Plants apply for processes, slow fire, quick fire, pressurization and enzymolysis, to several types of raw material, to study the dissolution rate and protein utilization rate of pig and chicken bones.

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Eurasia Consult’s database includes numerous Old Soup recipes

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

 

Lotus – beautiful to see and nutritious to eat

The lotus flower is often associated with China and Chinese culture. The lotus frequently features on traditional Chinese paintings. What is less known is that the lotus plant is an important food as well, particularly its pods.

The lotus is sacred and regarded as a special symbol of Buddhism in China, being a favorite icon of the Goddess of Mercy. She is often depicted standing or sitting on an enormous lotus flower. Lotus buds, carefully folded back, are often sold outside her temples so devotees can buy them as offerings. In China, it is the flower of summer, just as winter is best symbolized by the peach, spring by the orchid and autumn by the chrysanthemum.

The lotus has appeared frequently in Chinese literature. The poet Han Yu (768-824) once sang praises of the lotus root and described it to be “sweet as honey, icy as frost, a slice in the mouth heals all sickness”. The Qing emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) compared it to “the snowy white, slender curved arm of a beautiful woman”.

Several parts of the lotus plant are eaten. The bright green shoots hidden inside the lotus seeds are intensely bitter. They are collected, dried and used in infusions meant to clear the heat from tired bodies. They are a traditional cure for pimples and acne as well, and young girls wanting a clear complexion willingly drink the bitter brew. The seeds, however, are sweet and nutty and are eaten fresh, straight from the pod, or dried and preserved. They are rehydrated and cooked in stir-fries and in soups both sweet and savory. The nuts are also ground down into a sweet paste that is popularly used in Chinese cakes and pastries.

Lotus pod is actually a misnomer, because the most famous edible part of the lotus is actually the swollen stems, which grow underwater, and not the actual roots, which appear like beards along the noded segments. It is for these that farmers grow the lotus, and there are about 500,000 to 700,000 hectares under cultivation all over the country, depending on demand. The most famous producers are concentrated in Hubei province, especially around the city of Wuhan. However, the lotus root is such a popular vegetable that it is grown wherever there is water, from the peaty, black-earthed regions of China’s northeast to the riverine hinterlands of both the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, to the coastal provinces down south to the island of Hainan.

Lotus pods can be eaten raw. They are juicy and crispy and have a rather neutral taste. In traditional Chinese medicine, lotus pods are cold food and hence an excellent refreshment during a hot day. According to Chinese medicine, lotus pods strengthen the spleen and the stomach and relax strained nerves.

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The China Research Institute for Nutritional Resources in Beijng has found the following composition of nutrients in lotus pods (per 100 gr of fresh lotus pod).

Nutrient content
Proteine 1gr
Fat 0.1 gr
Carbohydrates 19.8 gr
Calcium 19 mg
Phosphorous 51 mg
Carotene 0.22 mg
Vitamin B1 0.11 mg
Vitamin B2 0.04 mg
Nicotinic acid 0.4 mg
Vitamin C 25 mg

Lotus pods are most frequently processed into slices. Lotus pods slices can be sold dried, fresh, canned, etc. The are an ingredient in many traditional Chinese dishes, like birds nest soup introduced in another post of this blog..

The following video shows the processing of dried lotus seed.

Honeyed Lotus Root Stuffed With Sticky Rice (guihua lian’ou; literally: ‘osmanthus flower lotus root’) is one of the traditional ways of preparing lotus roots. The interior root chambers filled with sticky rice then slowly cooked so that the lotus root’s starchy sweetness fully develops, and turns from pale white to deep red-brown (much like a quince) and the rice grains plump up to fill the long tubular spaces within the lotus root, giving it that characteristic appearance when sliced. After removing a root from its syrupy bath the cook will slice it into centimetre-thick slices.

HoneyLotus

Autumn food

Lotus root is most abundantly harvested in autumn, and has naturally become part of the feast for the Mid-Autumn Festival. One of the reasons it is widely used in cooking of autumn dishes is because of the Chinese culinary tradition of “eating local, eating seasonal” which was born out of the belief that food in season is the best gift from nature. In the case of the lotus root, traditional Chinese medicine practitioners claim that the aquatic root vegetable is best for relieving summer heat and autumn dryness. While the lotus root is widely used in soups, cooked with pork ribs and stir-fried sweet and sour style, it is usually presented as an appetizer, or cold dish, during autumn. Candied lotus root stuffed with slow-cooked glutinous rice and topped with osmanthus jam is one of the most common starters. This dish was once native to the east China region where diners liked having something sweet to start the meal. These days, the dish is popular all over the country, attracting loyal followings with the shiny lustre of the osmanthus syrup, its appealing fragrance, and above all, the soft and sticky lotus root, cooked to a melt-in-the-mouth mealy texture.

Lotus pod powder

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A second traditional product is lotus pods powder (oufen in Chinese). The 40 odd top producers produced 14,000 mt of lotus pod powder in 2012.

Cleaned pods are crushed in water and filtered. The filtrate is then set aside to let the lotus powder precipitate. Tianfeng Food Co., Ltd. (Hangzhou, Zhejiang) produces a lotus pod powder with lotus seeds and scented with osmanthus flowers.

Lotus pod powder is currently available in various adapted versions. Wanglong Food Co., Ltd. (same) supplies a sugar free lotus pod powder, sweeetened with iso-maltitol and enriched with dairy calcium.

Lotus vermicelli

Fensi1Fensi2

Another popular product is lotus rood vermicelli, or fensi in Chinese. This vermicelli is made from the starch of lotus root. It is a natural green food with no preservatives or additives, with a long shelf life. When it is put in boiling water, it gets soft and flexible easily and can be put in soup, fried dishes, hot pots, casseroles, cold dishes, or stewed and other dishes After cooking, it is clear and its liquid is transparent. It is called “the king of vermicelli” because of its easy digestion and claimed aid in reducing body fat. A major manufacturer is: High Mountain Natural Longevity Food Co. (Dahua, Guangxi).

Hot pods

An example of an innovative product are Liangpin Puzi’s ‘spiced lotus pods’. The ingredients are: lotus pods, sugar, chili pepper, salt, chicken powder, MSG and spices. An intriguing alternative for crisps to accompany a cold beer.

HotLotusPod

Eurasia Consult’s database of the Chinese food industry includes 14 processors of lotus pods

Also look at the vinegar lotus eggs in my post on innovative vinegar-based foods and  beverages.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.