All photography by Kelsey Lynn Madison
Before your first taste of Vietnamese mooncakes, you might be curious how they became part of our mid-autumn festivities. The word ‘mooncake’ first appeared during the reign of China’s Song Dynasty, from 1127 - 1279. By the Ming Dynasty period, mooncakes were a regular feature of the harvest moon festival. Though nobody knows exactly when mooncakes first came to Vietnam, over hundreds of years Vietnamese food has often been influenced by Chinese traditions.
In Vietnam, Tết Trung Thu was seen as a special time for reunion and harmony. Once a year, after a fruitful harvest, families and relatives would gather to relax, sing songs and drink tea under the light of the full moon. Children would look forward to staying up late, carrying star lanterns in the dark, and listening for the drums of lion dancers. Square mooncakes representing the earth and round mooncakes representing the sky were the perfect treat on this magical night.
Long ago there were only two types of mooncakes in Vietnam. Savoury mixed paste mooncakes were made of up to 10 ingredients, including lime leaves, smoked sausage, lotus seeds and a secret sauce or wine. Mixed paste mooncakes would be made in square moulds and baked in the oven. These cakes would be offered on family altars and shared at home. The round mung bean mooncakes were made with sticky rice flour to be eaten fresh. They can be offered in Buddhist pagodas or eaten at home.
These days, you’ll have many more than two mooncake flavours to choose from. Traditional bakeries normally use ingredients such as lotus seed, coconut meat, black sesame, nuts and young rice to make large mooncakes for everyone to share. More adventurous bakers offer pistachio, coffee, chocolate, jelly, strawberry and even durian mooncakes to their patrons.
TIP: Because mooncakes are very rich, they pair perfectly with hot green tea. Oolong tea is best for savoury mooncakes, while floral teas go nicely with sweet mooncakes.
Gifting mooncakes between family members, colleagues and businesses has become a favourite element of Tết Trung Thu. As gifts, the presentation of the cakes is just as important as the taste. Every year, bakeries create new styles, colours and flavours to please the market, and design beautiful boxes to showcase the cakes as expensive gift sets.
In the weeks leading up to Tết Trung Thu, you’ll see mooncake stalls pop up on streets all over Vietnam. Top hotels debut artistic mooncake sets with carefully thought-out concepts for businesses to give their best clients. Two weeks before the holiday, which always falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, is the ideal time to send mooncakes to the people on your list.
A favourite part of eating mooncakes is discovering the taste of the filling underneath the crust, and the surprise waiting inside. In the past not all mooncakes had an insert, and to find a salted duck egg yolk in your mooncake was an envied piece of luck. Nowadays, there are enough eggs to go around. You can even buy mooncakes with two egg yolks inside if you like.
Beyond round and square mooncakes, you can find delightful mooncakes shaped like rabbits, lanterns, fish and peonies, and mooncakes with snow skin (bánh dẻo) or flaky crusts (bánh nướng). Some bakers decorate their mooncakes with a piece of gold leaf, or hide crunchy nuts, chocolate truffles, or tropical jams inside. Of course, the best mooncakes are always made with fresh ingredients and no preservatives. They are best eaten within a week or two.
With so many options around, the first thing to do is to find mooncakes that suit you. Some people like big blocks, while others prefer bite-sized pieces. Every city has its established bakers, but it can be fun to look around until you find the design and flavours that pique your curiosity. Here are some interesting places to shop for mooncakes in Vietnam now:
In Hanoi, five-star hotels such as the Metropole and Intercontinental always debut beautiful sets of premium mooncakes each year. Small bakeries such as The Vuu Cakes create lovely mooncake sets you can order online. You can also pick up speciality mooncakes from places such as Marou Chocolate, or buy mooncakes for a good cause from Hopebox online.
Traditional bakery Hy Lam Mon has made mooncakes in Ho Chi Minh City for many years. If you’re looking for expert craftsmanship and presentation, try the mooncakes at Hotel des Arts, or check out the interesting sets from The Bakes Saigon. You can find afternoon tea and mooncake promos as many of the city’s top hotels.
Be sure to buy some tea to enjoy with your mooncakes on the night of September 13, 2019. Sit outside in the evening and look for the reflection of the full moon in your tea cup as you savour each delicious slice.