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As Malaysians prepare to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival this year, mooncakes are a common sight. We visit a traditional bakery in Kepong to see how the iconic sweet treats are made.
The ancient Chinese myth often regaled during Mid-Autumn Festival is the tale of Chang’e, the beautiful Goddess of Immortality who resides on the moon. Families would reunite with wedges of mooncake as children parade their colourful cellophane lanterns or strew the ground with lit candles, mirroring the stars above as a full moon graces the night.
The mooncake is an essential component of the long standing celebration as it carries traditional well wishes of longevity, good health and unity in the form of this beloved sweet delight.
Traditionally, red bean paste, lotus seed paste, and five smashed nuts are the common types of fillings available for mooncakes. What gives mooncakes their signature look is the crust that wraps the filling: the dough is typically stamped with floral carvings and Chinese characters often indicating the filling within or the name of the bakery. To represent the ethereal moon is a gleaming, richly-coloured whole duck egg yolk – its role stretches from symbolism to providing textural and flavour contrasts to the mooncake.
Forty-year-old Tiong Kee Cake House in Kepong is one humble bakery that is busily preparing for the demand of mooncakes this time of year. The owner Tang Nga Loi, her son Lau Kean Seng and a few employees bake and pack the handmade mooncakes themselves.
“During this period, we bake roughly 2,000 pieces of mooncakes per day for two weeks,” says Lau in Mandarin. “Although we may have introduced machines into our production line-up, my mother still cooks the mooncake fillings herself.”
The bakery mostly prepares the ubiquitous Cantonese-style mooncake (the one most of us are familiar with), but on the production line are also the less common Shanghainese and Teochew varieties – the flaky-crust distant cousins of the mooncake we’re used to.
When it’s not mooncake season, Tiong Kee Cake House focuses on other traditional Chinese pastries and treats such as wedding biscuits, kaya puffs, walnut cookies and siew pao.
For traditional baked mooncakes, there’s a chemistry behind achieving that perfect golden crust. According to Lau, a good balance of sweet, sour and alkaline ingredients can transform mere dough to delectable crust – and it’s through this that he judges a well-made mooncake.
The trick to achieving the golden standard lies in the amber-hued syrup. Sugar is cooked to a viscous consistency for over five to six hours and infused with fresh lemons and clementines for a fruity fragrance. “Some bakers would swap lemons for vinegar or salted plums, but we prefer a combination of lemons and clementines, even though they are pricier ingredients,” explains Lau.
This syrup is then combined with flour, peanut oil and lye water to form a dough, which is subsequently weighed and sliced equally. One portion of dough is evenly flattened to encase a ball of prepared filling before being pressed into a well-floured mooncake mould.
And with some confidence and faith, the dough balls are carefully tapped out from the mould to reveal their new recognisable forms as mooncakes. And off they go, with a light sweeping of evaporated milk on their visage, into a pre-heated oven for the final step towards their tawny reveal.
Address: Tiong Kee Cake House, No. 12, Jalan Besar, Kepong, 52100 Kuala Lumpur (03 6275 0612). Open Mon-Sun, 1pm-9pm. Mooncakes are priced from RM3 to RM9 per piece.
By Cindy Low Shing Yi
Photos and video by Teoh Eng Hooi
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