First published on 9 Sep 2010. Updated on 5 Oct 2010.
At about this time every year, we anxiously anticipate the innovative spin chefs have taken on the traditional mooncake. On the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar (usually late September on the Gregorian calendar), friends and relatives gather to gaze, Taylor Lautner-like, at the moon. It is also at this time that mooncake diplomacy goes into full swing.
The typical mooncake is a baked thin crust that’s around 10cm in diameter, 4cm in thickness, and filled with lotus paste and duck egg yolk. But in our city, which invented the Tunch (Asian buffet) and paired foie gras with Peking duck, it’s hardly surprising that the mooncake has been made over more times than Cher has had plastic surgery. In many kitchens, the pastry crust has been replaced by pastel-coloured ‘snowskin’ made of glutinous rice.
Benson Fok, the executive chef of Jiang-Nan Chun Restaurant, however, is having none of this newfangled snowskin fad. Born in Hong Kong, he has been making mooncakes for 20 years. Starting his culinary career at 15, Fok practised his traditional Cantonese cooking style in Hong Kong, Macau, the UK, the Philippines and Indonesia before joining Singapore’s Four Seasons Hotel six months ago.
For Fok, the traditional route remains the best. ‘We introduced snowskin some time back, but it was not as successful. Considering the equipment required to make snowskin, it made more sense to stick to the traditional method.’
Because the delicate snowskins require refrigeration and have a shorter shelf life, Fok tells us that the traditional baked variety is better for gift giving. What’s more, Four Seasons bakes its mooncakes daily without any preservatives. No machines are used; each mooncake is painstakingly made by hand.
When the Four Seasons challenged Fok to come up with healthy mooncakes this year (always a tall order as each mooncake can pack 1000 calories), he created the dongquai mooncake and antioxidantrich mixed berries mooncake. ‘Dong-quai is good for vitality. It is an ingredient that has been used since ancient times in Asia as a spice, tonic and medicine,’ Fok explains, adding that he also enjoys the earthy taste of the herb. Known as ‘female ginseng’, it’s said to enhance beauty while harmonising vital internal energy.
I sample a sliver and wonder aloud how something so delicious can also be good for me. ‘Can men eat it, too?’ I ask. Fok smiles slyly. ‘Yes, but not too much.’