Editor’s note:Jordy Comes Alive, from the U.S., has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for three years and become a big fan of local food and culture.
His piece has been titled, subtitled, and edited by Tuoi Tre News.
Mid-Autumn Festival (Tet Trung Thu) is also known as the 'Children’s Festival,' celebrated throughout many Asian countries.
This is Vietnam's second-largest festival next to Tet (Lunar New Year) and it’s held on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. In Vietnam, this special time is said to originally commemorate the successful harvest bounty ending the season, and nowadays it’s a time for families to come together to celebrate and honor their children.
|A lantern shop on Luong Nhu Hoc Street, dubbed 'the lantern street' in District 5, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Ngoc Phuong / Tuoi Tre|
The festival and its treat
Similar to Tet, weeks before Tet Trung Thu, all of Vietnam begins to prepare for this incredible holiday and you see it everywhere with mooncakes and lantern stands appearing all over the streets.
On this magical day, many families plan events for their children that include games, painting face masks, and decorating red cellophane lanterns that light up and are carried at dusk during a parade normally held by schools.
There are also a lot of folklore and unique Vietnamese traditions that go along with the festival including a well-known fable about a man named Chú Cuội (Uncle Cuoi), who grasped onto a magical banyan tree while it floated up to the moon. Vietnamese people will tell you if you look closely at the full moon, you’ll see the shadow of Chú Cuội sitting beneath the tree. The light that glows from the children's lanterns will help Chú Cuội find his way back to earth!
|A man is pictured buying a lantern for the 2022 Mid-Autumn Festival at a shop on Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street in District 5, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Ng.Tri / Tuoi Tre|
About a month before the Mid-Autumn Festival, you’ll notice mooncake stands pop up everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City selling an endless assortment of these fantastic Asian delicacies!
So just what are these tiny cakes that the Vietnamese are so passionate about? Let’s start by putting them into five categories: crust, shape, flavor, size, and packaging.
The most common or 'classic' mooncakes are bánh nướng, which sport a golden flaky wheat crust, and bánh dẻo (snow skin), which are wrapped in soft sticky rice flour.
When it comes to shapes, the most well known are the round and square mooncakes. The designs on their tops are endless, molded with intricate geometric patterns ranging from fish, flowers, and more.
Now here's where mooncakes get even more interesting, what’s inside them, the flavors. The easiest way to categorize the fillings is sweet or savory. The variety is vast and the fillings can get a bit strange too (I like it when it gets weird). Mixed nuts, red beans, white lotus seeds, salted eggs with lava yokes, minced pork, green tea, fruits, jams, chicken, green tea, cheese, coffee, chocolate, and even more.
With modern mooncakes, all bets are off when it comes to shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors. The sizes range from tiny two-bite mooncakes to party pizza sizes.
When mooncakes are given as gifts, what can’t be overlooked is the highly stylized packaging they come in. The packaging can be just as important as the flavors of the mooncakes ranging from elegant to elaborate. They can come in a single plastic-covered box or a beautiful tin to a desk-size cabinet with drawers housing the individual mooncakes, giving the appearance of a well-crafted jewelry box.
Major brands, hotels, bakeries, coffee shops, and high-end restaurants all get in on the action by releasing limited edition mooncakes with over-the-top exquisite packaging. They’re given as gifts to important clients or sold as limited editions to the public, making them collectible.
|A customer chooses to buy mooncakes at a supermarket in Thu Duc City, Ho Chi Minh City, August 2022. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre|
It's mooncake mukbang time!
In a way, mooncakes remind me of Western holiday 'fruit cakes' but the Asian mooncakes are taken to another realm with their history, designs, and flavors.
For the sake of this article, I decided to assemble my very own personal mooncake mukbang (eating show)! I wanted to gather a small assortment of mooncakes from the basic to the bizarre and made sure I didn’t buy mooncakes that I’d had before.
For this mooncake expedition, I chose the following to sample and then review:
|A collection of mooncakes Jordy Comes Alive uses for his mukbang|
Green tea and lotus seeds – VND109,000 ~ US$4.65 (Kinh Do)
I got this one from a very famous local brand. You’ll see their pop-up stands everywhere a month before the festival begins.
The cake has a bánh nướng crust and the design is made up of carved-out leaves with flower petals.
I sliced the cake down the center and immediately smelled the soothing scent of green tea. The greenish paste inside is thick and in the center are two salted duck yokes glowing like tiny suns.
|Green tea and lotus seeds. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive|
I cut myself a wedge-like chunk and popped it into my pie hole. The consistency is gelatinous and sticky and the salted egg crumbles like a powder. The paste dissolves, coating the tongue and allowing the taste of the lotus seeds to take over on the finish. The yoke adds an eggy saltness to the overall flavor. I love it!
Taro with salted eggs - VND79,000 ~ $3.37 (Cộng Café)
This tiny block of a mooncake is the perfect individual size and can be devoured in five or six bites.
|Taro with salted eggs. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive|
When I cut into the mooncake, I could feel the density of the clay-like filling and its color matched the mooncake's shell, its single yellow salted egg stood out against its purple innards.
The taro flavor is so light and buttery but overpowered by the flavor from the yolk. I only wished there was more of a taro vibe building better contrast between flavors.
Taking a second bite, I laughed to myself thinking if Playdough ever came out with a mooncake, this would be the perfect fit.
Prosperous unicorn: red bean paste with double salted egg yolks – VND195,000 ~ $8.30 (Rosemary Bakery)
I saw this stunning-looking mooncake online and had it delivered to my house the very next day to add to my mooncake mukbang collection.
The mooncake, named kỳ lân phú quý in Vietnamese, is in the shape of a unicorn and adorned with color moldings accented in gold glitter. It’s gorgeous right down to the little individual white teeth and the poked holes for eyes!
|'Kỳ lân phú quý' -- red bean paste with double salted egg yolks. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive|
The crust is made of wheat flour, and the colors are made from veggies like beetroot, chocolate, pumpkin, and pandan leaf powder.
As I was placing the cake down, it was releasing a sweet smell and I realized in order for me to enjoy this mooncake, I’d have to destroy this miniature work of art.
The knife cut into the mooncake effortlessly exposing a velvet red-colored bean paste with double duck yolks inside. The cake is excellent and full of red bean flavor and the texture of the paste has a gentle chew to it. The soft center yoke has a bright yellow outer ring with a darker undercooked sticky center.
It reminds me of getting a surprise treat inside a popsicle, it’s as fun to eat as it is to marvel at!
Saffron buffalo jerky mooncake - VND195,000 ~ $8.30 (Bakes Saigon)
The unique earthy green color and the wave-like pattern made this mooncake stand out but what made me extremely curious was the description.
It’s a Saffron-infused buffalo jerky with dry sausage, shiitake mushrooms, and a salted duck egg wrapped in a naturally colored traditional skin flavored with pandan. Whoa! This was my pick for a savory cake and savory it was!
Upon splitting the mooncake in half, it rewarded me with a beef blast that tickled my nose, having notes of hickory, smoke, and black pepper.
|Saffron buffalo jerky. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive|
My first thought after a few chews was “I have never had anything like this before,” making me smile wide. It’s very close to incredible. I love all kinds of jerky but still, this is on an upper-shelf level, unlike a SlimJim. The meat inside is shredded and packed tightly.
The outside of the cake almost acts like a casing as much as it is a crust. The buffalo meat is peppery and you get the sausage fat mixed with the funk of the shiitake on your tongue while the saffron sweetens it up with a floral bouquet. The rich center yolk completes it.
This mooncake is intoxicating and it’s an “OH WOW!” at first taste.
Dark chocolate truffle durian - VND270,000 ~ $11.50 (Tai Thong Mooncake)
Tai Thong has been making mooncakes throughout Asia since 1910 and I found that impressive but what drew my attention to this snow skin mooncake was its bright yellow appearance and its lifted Chinese letters and leaf motif.
I was shocked that it was so pricey but when I read the description of what was inside this neon mooncake, I realized why. This mooncake was filled to the brim with durian which is never a cheap endeavor and there was a mysterious dark chocolate truffle suspended in the middle. I’m a fan of durian and I’m a lover of all things dark chocolate.
I wanted to include a snow skin mooncake in my mukbang so…I bought it! This is another first for me and would be the most expensive mooncake I have ever eaten!
|Dark chocolate truffle durian. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive|
When I brought the knife down on the top of the mooncake, it wiggled a little and then the blade slid quickly through the cake until it hit the truffle center. There was a slight pop and when the mooncake opened up, it was followed by the mighty stench of durian. It was powerful!
Inside this mooncake was a yellow durian pudding both creamy in flavor and texture. The mochi-like skin adds the chew you need to make this bite complete. The truffle’s dark chocolate injects bitterness into the durian concoction while the truffle’s center is packed with thick cream. My first thought after swallowing was “I got my money's worth with this mooncake right from the first bite."
I ate this mooncake so, so slowly, calling it decadent would be an understatement.