In my feeble attempt to hunt down the best mooncake recipe on earth, I went undercover to test out the kitchens of one nondescript baking supplies store in Wanchai.
I knew something was wrong the moment I stepped inside the freezing cold compartments of their “classroom”, with the AC blasting at what must be 15 degrees. The air was filled with a tense anxiety. There were about 12 of us, mostly housewife looking women, and one single male classmate obviously there to accompany his girlfriend. None of us spoke to each other, and some were already busy taking notes on the ingredients that lay before us.
Finally, the teacher walked in, a short, gaunt man of about 50, sporting jeans and a plain T-shirt. We gather around the demonstration station, and Master Lee started showing us how to make the dough for the mooncake skin. I already knew this, but in order to make sure that I don’t say anything stupid during my own demonstration, I started asking questions about every little detail to double check.
“Ok, so the alkaline is to make the skin soft, right?” I asked.
“Yes, because traditional Cantonese mooncakes are to be eaten soft, not hard. When it comes out of the oven, it is still hard. We usually wait for a few days for it to turn soft before eating it,” said Master Lee.
“So how many days exactly?” asked the short hair-ed woman.
“2-3 days la.”
“So does that mean that I can’t eat this today?” the woman asked in amazement.
“Haha,” the master looked like he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to sigh, “you can eat one today, one tomorrow, and another after 3 days to test the difference.” And the short-haired diligently noted this down in her notebook.
Then came the lotus paste. Master Lee indented the rounded paste with his thumb and stuck a salty egg yolk in there. Then he started slowly turning the paste in the palm of his hands, and miraculously, upon coming into contact with its warmth the paste started to slowly mould around the yolk.
“But master, my thumb is not as big as yours!” asked the fair stout woman. She looked about 45 years old.
“Haha…” smiled the master wryly again. “That’s totally fine. This is just to make an indent. It could be small or large, the yolk would still fit.”
At this point I had almost lost my patience with the class. We are now over an hour into the class, but we are still on step number two and my classmates are asking the most unintelligent questions imaginable. And it only gets worse.
“Do we HAVE to use peanut oil? Like, 100% peanuts? Can it be like, 80% peanut?”
“How do I roll out my dough?”
I can’t help but wonder - is this a Hong Kong phenomenon or a global phenomenon? Since when did Chinese women become so unfamiliar with the kitchen and its daily operations that they begin to resemble valley girls? Really? Is there a rule against not eating mooncakes fresh out of the oven because the skin is crispy, as opposed to soft?
Then my friend M tells me about her colleague who, despite having lived in Canada for almost six years, thought that both Canada and Brazil are part of the United States.
I think it’s a Hong Kong phenomenon.