Homemade or imported, time-tested or innovative, moon cakes have arrived at local Asian markets and bakeries.
The arrival of Moon Festival, an East and Southeast Asian holiday marking the eighth full moon of the lunar year, generally falls in September or early October. It will be Sept 12 this year.
Moon Festival dates back more than 3,000 years to China's Zhou Dynasty. It began as a moon-worshipping festival for the brightest full moon of the year, thanks to the clear autumn sky, but gradually evolved into a holiday for family reunions.
The quintessential desserts for Moon Festival are conventionally categorized by region. However, each regional style continues evolving to create new subcategories.
For instance, the most commonly seen Cantonese style 廣式 usually contains a traditional filling such as lotus seed paste 蓮蓉, azuki bean (a dark red bean) paste 豆沙, or jujube (a dried fruit similar to dates) paste 棗泥, with a salted duck egg yolk in the center. But some modern-style moon cakes may have fruit jam or tea powder inside their Cantonese-style crusts.
While Cantonese-style moon cakes seem to dominate the market, Suzhou style manages to co-exist. Also known as Shanghai-style (for Suzhou City's proximity to Shanghai), Suzhou style distinguishes itself by having a flaky white crust, versus the Cantonese golden brown.
Azuki bean paste and jujube paste are two of the fillings Suzhou-style moon cakes always share with their Cantonese counterparts.
As for Suzhou-style-only fillings, one of them 椒鹽 contains sugar, salt, pepper and crushed walnuts. Another 玫瑰 consists of dried rose powder and sugary nuts.
Besides Suzhou and Cantonese flavors, moon cakes may also come in Taiwanese, Vietnamese, gluten-free or frozen styles.
Most moon cakes in Taiwan are actually either Cantonese-style or Suzhou-style. But there is a Taiwanese creation that has made its way to Asian markets in the Bay Area. It has the Suzhou-style white crust but a different kind of filling, mung bean (a grain-sized bean in olive green color, called 綠豆 in Chinese) paste.
Many Vietnamese moon cakes also contain mung bean paste, but their crusts are Cantonese-style.
Some Vietnamese moon cakes have a typical Southeast Asian filling made of durian, a type of fruit popular in Southeast Asia for its delicious taste, but repugnant to some people for its unusual smell.
Modernized durian moon cakes often come with gluten-free crusts made of rice flour.
Some gluten-free moon cakes are kept in room temperature, while others must be refrigerated or frozen and are therefore called snow-skin moon cakes, a 20th-century creation of Southeast Asia.
Snow-skin moon cakes may be filled with ice cream, or an entire moon cake can be made of ice cream.
Both types of frozen moon cakes can be found in the freezer sections of Ranch 99 stores. (East Bay locations for Ranch 99 Asian markets include Richmond, Fremont, Newark and Concord.)