“ONE. Two. Whack! ” demonstrates Chef Gan Chee Keong, hitting a heavy wooden block on the table. The thud is loud enough to make those of us surrounding the table at this mooncake workshop he’s conducting at Genting Palace restaurant jump back in alarm. Swiftly, he hits the mould twice more before gently sliding out a perfectly shaped mooncake from its snug spot.
Amazed by how easy he makes it all look, we persuade him to repeat the process again — this time, slower, for the purpose of photography. With a bright smile, he obliges. Nonchalantly, he wraps a thin, circular piece of pastry skin around a tennis ball-sized lotus paste. With nimble fingers, he presses the ball of pastry into the mould after flouring its surface. Without pausing, he whacks the mould on the table three times and once again, out slides another perfectly shaped mooncake ready for the oven.
Proudly, the chef, who is also Resorts World Genting dim sum chef, flaunts his delicate handiworks for our lenses. Out of curiosity, we couldn’t help asking him how many mooncakes he’s able to yield using this traditional technique. He mumbles some vague numbers before chuckling and waving the question away.
“We do not make mooncakes by hand anymore at Genting. The production has grown so large that we now need machines that can churn out 8,000 pieces a day to supply to the numerous restaurants and cafes that sell them here in the resort. So, I can’t remember how many pieces of mooncake I can yield from 1.5 kg of flour,” quips chef Gan.
However, he proceeds to share that 30g of pastry dough is the perfect size to wrap around 120g of filling. It might sound impossible, but having witnessed his expertise just minutes ago, we’re all convinced that practice truly makes perfect.
“The quality of our mooncakes has never been compromised one bit,” assures Gan, adding: “Instead, I do believe that we’ve improved in terms of quality because we’re using natural ingredients and making every part of the mooncake from scratch. Today’s workshop is just a small insight into the traditional way of making the mooncake.”
SHARING IS CARING
The affable chef has been making dim sum for over 20 years; the mooncake component is part of the initial induction. “Knowing how to make mooncakes is one part of being a certified dim sum chef. So I doubt the tradition of making it will die. But how different or diluted it will be in years to come, I cannot say,” he says, voice low.
Having travelled to many Asian countries to taste their versions of mooncakes, Gan is adamant that our version is still the best. “In China, the mooncakes have little burnt parts that they feel give it its flavour and character; ours is smooth and shiny. Meanwhile in Taiwan, the skin is flaky, almost resembling Kah Lui Peng (wedding biscuits),” he reveals.
As we take our seat for a chat following the short but immersive workshop, Gan poses a rhetorical question: “Did you know that eating mooncakes isn’t so much for prosperity but to foster a stronger relationship with the family?”
With a faraway look, he sips on the fragrant Goh Tong Pu’er tea specially cultivated in China under the supervision of Genting, and continues: “Imagine sitting with your family and eating these sweet pastries while looking at the moon. It’s very calming.”
Zhongqiu Jie (Mid-Autumn Festival) is essentially the practice of worshiping the harvest moon in autumn. Its history can be traced back as far as the Zhou Dynasty — the longest Chinese dynasty that ruled over China from 1046 BC to 256 BC. However, the actual consumption of mooncakes during this auspicious day was first recorded during the Tang dynasty, from the 619 AD.
According to legend, a Turpan businessman gifted some mooncakes to Emperor Taizong after his victory against the Xiongnu (the nomadic people of ancient central Asia) on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. The emperor was said to have looked up to the moon while eating the sweet treat and shared the remaining ones with his ministers, thus beginning the tradition of consuming mooncakes in honour of the emperor.
With the eighth month of the lunar calendar just around the corner, various eateries, food and beverage corporations, as well as bakeries in the country are gearing up to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. Falling on Sept 24 this year, the Mid-Autumn Festival is known to be one out of four most significant Chinese festivals celebrated. It’s also the second largest after Chinese New Year.
And Resorts World Genting, just like many of its competitors, has started production and sale of the sweet mooncakes typically consumed on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month — the day when the moon is said to shine brightest.
In the past, these morsels, which are symbolic of unity, would be savoured with family and loved ones under the bright rays of the full moon. Although there still remains many households today that continue to keep to the tradition of consuming wedges of mooncakes paired with Chinese tea during the Mid-Autumn Festival, there are also others who end up purchasing them to give away as gifts as a way of fostering good relationships.
“Back in the days, mooncakes were only made closer to festival day. This was usually about two weeks to a month before and they were not packaged as prettily as those you find today. Back then, mooncakes couldn’t be kept for too long,” explains Gan, before adding that thanks to modern technology, it’s now possible to produce them at least three months in advance.
INNOVATING THE HUMBLE LOTUS
Traditionally, mooncakes have always been filled with sweet lotus. Some might have either a single salted egg yolk or double. These days, producers have become adventurous, injecting creative designs and filling the mooncakes with more interesting flavours.
At Genting itself, there are 14 flavours to choose from this year, of which three are new creations. There’s the delicate Snow Skin Durian Paste, the healthier option of Pandan Jade with Buttermilk Custard, and the rich Durian Paste with Durian Jingsa. “Because of the abundance of durian at this time of the year, we thought to take advantage of it. Our two new durian paste mooncakes should capture the king of fruits beautifully,” explains Gan.
In addition, the snow skin one is intriguingly moulded to resemble a mini durian with its light green tinge and prickly points. The skin is also made out of beans instead of normal flour — a unique innovation that prevents the skin from hardening when stored in the fridge. This way, customers can enjoy the silkiness of the snow skin even when chilled.
However, the chef is quick to point out that despite there being so many varieties of mooncakes in the market these days, a lot of consumers remain pretty “old school” in their preference.
“People still like the simple taste of soft brown skin filled with lotus paste and single salted egg yolk,” he reveals, adding: “The only difference I’ve noted throughout the years is the level of sweetness. For over a decade since I started working here (Genting), I’ve been reducing the amount of sugar I use because people just don’t like their mooncakes to be so sickly sweet anymore. Many prefer the natural taste and sweetness of the lotus seeds.”
With a wry smile, Gan concedes that trying to come up with new and innovative designs every year for mooncakes have become rather challenging, as more chefs and bakers are turning more daring with their creations and flavours, with some going as far as mismatching flavours.
“The mooncake landscape is forever changing and it’s very competitive these days. So, research usually takes about a year before the festivities. I’d better start with mine after this interview!” he quips mischievously.
As he prepares to head back to the kitchen and I gather my things to take my leave, Gan leans over conspiratorially and says: “Never eat mooncakes that have just come out of the oven. They’re hard so will taste terrible. And not many people know this.” He advises that they be left to rest for a couple of days, which will allow some time for the oil to seep out before consuming. “That’s when you’ll get the best mooncake.”