In the middle of bright yellow paste lies a crimson orange ball. The egg yolk. Salted and dried up to the size of a cherry. Or should we say it is the moon, at its fullest on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month each year.
Roughly 650 years ago, it was a bright moon for the Ming Dynasty, but not so bright for the Yuan Dynasty. The Mongolian rulers’ defeats started from a full moon day of August 1368, when the capital Dadu (present day Beijing) was captured by Zhu Yuanzhang and his Han Chinese insurrection armies. Zhu Yuanzhang then rose to the throne as the first king of the Ming dynasty, and he made sure that the Mid-Autumn Festival, which coincides with the end of the harvesting season, was celebrated throughout the country. As the story goes, such revolutionary victory could not have happened without them little mooncakes.
They were secret means of distributing messages among the resisting forces. Words were printed on each mooncake as a simple puzzle. Each mooncake in a package of four was then cut into four pieces, and the sixteen parts were arranged in a particular way to form the entire message. Afterwards, the cakes were eaten and the trace erased. I don’t know what they would do if a hungry kid got hold of a piece.
Although people aren’t sharing secret information anymore (as if anything could remain secretive under the communist watch), the mooncakes still have imprinted words on top and still come in packages of four.
The most popular kind of mooncakes have elaborate designs with golden brown crust, originating from Guangzhou. Other kinds more or less are spin-off versions of the Suzhou-style mooncake with a simple round shape, no design, flaky skin which can be peeled off by the layers, and no need for a mooncake mold.
When the Chinese immigrants settled in the Mekong delta, they introduced the round, flaky mooncakes, referred to as “pía” in Teochew dialect, to the southern Vietnamese, who quickly adopted the recipe and the trade to make it a regional specialty, the Soc Trang‘s pía. “Pía” means “bánh”, things made with flour, but the innocuous southerners took it as a name, and started calling the flaky mooncakes bánh bía. Unlike the Cantonese mooncake that is only eaten during the Chinese Mid-Autumn festival, bánh bía gets served year round, bought as gifts from travelers to Soc Trang, featured in the Khmers’ moon festival Oc Om Boc in October, and individually packaged for sale at $1.50 a piece in Vietnamese sandwich shops in San Jose.
The recipe, too, has slightly departed from its Suzhou originals. If the Chinese counterparts often contain lotus seed, red bean paste, nuts, and sometimes pork for savoriness, the Soc Trang version stays homogeneous with either mung bean paste or taro paste, which can be flavored with lard and durian to the likings. But whatever goes inside, the doughy, flaky skin of bánh bía is the unchangeable feature, distinguishing it from all other pastries.
Each pía needs two kinds of dough: the “skin dough” and the inner layer dough. The skin dough on the outside, made of flour, water and canola oil, gains its elasticity and smoothness from a little kneading, while the inner layer dough has only flour and oil and is left unkneaded to keep it thick and chewy. Later the two kinds are flattened together to make the crust, but with the inner layer dough always contained inside the skin dough, otherwise the banh bia would have a coarse surface. After baked half way, the pía is taken out and glossed some egg wash over its upper side. When fully baked, they shine a ripe yellow invitation, ready to be stamped “longevity”, “harmony”, or some other character in red.
The whole process, from making the filling paste to baking, can take up a whole day. Buying it at the store takes two minutes. If you don’t count driving time.
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41 Serra Way, Suite 108 (across the parking lot from New East Lake Seafood)
Milpitas, CA 95035
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Click here for a recipe of bánh bía (Vietnamese-adpated Suzhou mooncake)