Arts and Entertainment

A Pedestrian’s Guide to the Mooncake

A look at where you can find mooncakes year-round and a taste test of the mooncakes from those bakeries.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

No matter where you are in the city, the experience of walking into an Asian bakery is almost always a comforting ritual. There’s always some sort of conversation buzzing in the air, mingling with the smell of sweet warm milk for the drinks and a faint buttery smell from the morning’s bread and pastries. Mothers clutch their toddlers tightly in one hand and somehow manage to maneuver buns with plastic tongs onto a tray with the other. Old men sit by the windows, angling their copies of “The World Journal” so that the sunlight hits the newspaper in just the right way, allowing their aging eyes to squint a little less strenuously. Occasionally, they sip from their cups of cheap coffee, heavily diluted with milk and sugar. The selection of offerings varies little from day to day. There are always the loaves of milk buns, usually shaped into perfect squares and sliced uniformly and bagged with the bakery’s logo. Below those are filled variations of the milk bread in individually-sized portions; walking by, you can see labels for coconut cream, ham and egg, pork floss, corn and mayonnaise, and more. Further down, there are dan tat, or egg tarts, lined up in trays and nestled in delicate paper liners. Sometimes there's a rotating heater with puff pastry stuffed with curry or pie fillings. In the pastry case next to the cashier are whimsically decorated cake slices, puddings, and other cold desserts.

On a late afternoon in the late summer, the experience of walking into the bakery changes subtly. If you eavesdrop with your loose grasp of Mandarin and examine the display cases, it dawns on you. The usual items are rearranged to make room for red and gold patterned boxes of mooncakes. There are flyers on the wall advertising those boxes as gifts. In your early childhood, this would be the time of year when your parents stockpiled boxes of edible gifts in the living room, complaining that there was no way such a small family could finish all those pastries.

It is the season of the Autumn Festival, the season for mooncakes. They’re small and dense pastries: sweet fillings encased in a thin pastry shell that shines from the egg wash brushed on top prior to baking. The top is often pressed with some sort of intricate design, be it a character or a flower or decorative swirls, making it seem more like a piece of art than a dessert. Almost every child who grew up eating mooncakes is familiar with the lotus mooncake, the chocolate chip cookie of mooncakes. It seems that nobody has ever been able to finish one by themselves. Instead, it is meant to be cut into slices and shared among family and friends with hot tea.

Even if you miss Autumn Festival season, you can still find these delicate pastries year round in the city. Here are a few:

Golden Fung Wong

41 Mott St

The storefront is a plain weathered white and easy to miss if not for the flickering neon sign in the window. Large red Chinese characters spell out the bakery’s name, and a red English translation underneath accompanies it. Inside, the pastries and other baked goods can be found in a large display case, lined up on trays behind small handwritten signs. There’s no seating, just display cases that double as a counter. Middle-aged cashiers seem to do a million things at once, whether it is dashing in and out of the kitchen with trays of pastries, steeping Lipton tea bags in hot milk and sugar, speaking to customers in rapid-fire Cantonese, or ringing purchases up at the cash register.

The mooncakes came sealed in a clear plastic bag with the bakery logo in gold letters. The golden yellow crust was brushed with a glossy sheen prior to baking, indicative of its Cantonese origin. The doughy shell was dense, and both the lotus and green tea fillings were the sweetest out of the three locations. Though not necessarily unpleasant for all, the filling was incredibly sweet, even when accompanied by hot black tea.

Price: $5 per mooncake

Rating: 3/5

Lung Moon Bakery

81 Mulberry St

Located just a few blocks down from Golden Fung Wong, Lung Moon Bakery is equally inconspicuous. Tucked between two larger stores on a busy street, it can easily be missed. Aside from the neon sign, the storefronts of Lung Moon Bakery and Golden Fung Wong look the same—large Chinese characters in red and an English translation in green beneath it. With baked goods organized close together in display cases and trays mostly behind the counter, Lung Moon is significantly cozier. On a handwritten sign taped to the case, they advertise their hand-pressed mooncakes.

These mooncakes came in small flimsy plastic bags packed into a rigid clear container. The thin crusts are flaky with a reddish brown sheen, and pastry contents are marked by a small colored circle stamped in the middle. The mooncakes are sweet, but mild enough for the flavors of the fillings to be detected. The lotus has a taste reminiscent of red bean with fragrant vanilla essence blended in, while the green tea has the subtle but distinct bitterness of matcha.

Price: $4.5

Rating: 4.5/5

Chiu Hong Bakery

161 Mott St

New York, NY 1001

Chiu Hong Bakery is located away from the Chinatown foot traffic and has a café-like setting, making it seem like a retreat from all the people. An outdated television set hangs from the corner of the ceiling, broadcasting a sports channel in Cantonese. Old men with their copies of “The World Journal” and middle-aged women conversing over cups of tea sit at the metal tables. The pastries are located in well-lit display cases that seem to be the center of attention in the dimly lit shop.

The mooncakes here are small, about the size of an egg. They are round and plain, as opposed to the intricately decorated traditional mooncakes. The flaky shell indicates a Taiwanese or Suzhounese origin, and its size indicates that it was to be eaten as a pastry any time of the year, rather than as a seasonal treat like other mooncakes. Green tea-filled mooncakes are not offered here, but black bean and lotus are. Both fillings are runnier and not nearly as sweet as the other mooncakes from Lung Moon Bakery and Golden Fung Wong. Out of the three, they’re the least sweet and have a sort of comfort that makes them seem more like something you would be able to enjoy on a daily basis.

Price: $3.50

Rating: 5/5