Taste of tradition: Teochew, Hainanese and Hokkien mooncakes

Some old-school bakeries still use time-honoured recipes to turn out traditional mooncakes

The tradition of eating mooncakes is rooted in age-old history, with many variations making their way to Singapore with the early Chinese immigrants.

And while the annual mooncake season is filled with modern confections boasting unusual fillings and colourful skin, some old-school bakeries here still offer traditional mooncakes made using time-honoured recipes.

This year, the Mid-Autumn Festival falls on Sept 27, the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. It dates back to the Shang dynasty, when Chinese emperors would worship the moon for a plentiful harvest.

Legend has it that the mooncakes were stuffed with secret messages, which were passed along to start a rebellion in China under the rule of the Mongols. Back then, the patterns on the surface of the pastry served as coded messages.


Mr Wee Chow Ann and his nephew Wong Eng How with Nam Tong Lee Confectionery's signature Hainanese mooncakes, and Poh Guan Cake House owner Chan Kim Ho (above) with his traditional Teochew mooncake.

While the Cantonese lotus paste baked mooncake and Teochew yam paste mooncake are more commonly found here, there are lesser-known ones from other dialect groups that Life found.

Some people say that life is boring if there's only lotus paste mooncakes.

I beg to differ.

If you lose your culinary history, you will lose your culture.

MR HAM WENG SENG, 55, the third-generation owner of Chop Tai Chong Kok, which sells Cantonese mooncakes

Two purveyors sell Hainanese mooncakes - Amethyst Pastry & Cakes in Bukit Panjang and Hainan Cuisine & Snacks, a hawker stall in Toa Payoh. The mooncakes are filled with dried fruit and melon seeds and the flaky skin is made with flour, lard and salt.

Hainan Cuisine & Snacks sells Hainanese mooncakes made famous by Nam Tong Lee Confectionery, which used to be in Purvis Street. The shop closed in 2006 and its third-generation owner Wong Eng How, who is in his 60s, gets them made in Batam and sells them at the stall.

His 90-year-old uncle Wee Chow Ann, who started working at Nam Tong Lee when he was 12, says in Mandarin: "The mooncakes taste the same, or actually, even better. You have to grind the ingredients together. It is a lot of hard work."

Mr Wong adds: "When the shop closed, I saw a lot of potential in the mooncakes. It will be great if we can restart the business, but that means we have to improve the product even more."

The stall sells about 20 boxes of the mooncakes (eight in a box) a day and orders from customers have been streaming in steadily. Its signature red box with gold Chinese characters has not changed since the shop opened more than a century ago.

Over at Poh Guan Cake House in Upper Cross Street, customers are flocking in to buy traditional Teochew and Cantonese mooncakes.

Although owner Chan Kim Ho, 73, is Hokkien, he picked up his skills from other pastry masters when he was just 15.

He tells Life about the "gongfu" required to ensure the mooncakes are up to scratch in both taste and texture.

"Other shops may have perfectlooking mooncakes, but they are made by machines. Ours are handmade. They may not look so nice, but they definitely taste great," he says.

He sells a variety of Teochew mooncakes, such as la bia (flaky lard pastries filled with green bean or red bean paste) and la gao (steamed black sesame cake), as well as Cantonese baked mooncakes and other pastries that are used for weddings and birthdays.

Mr Ham Weng Seng, 55, the third-generation owner of Chop Tai Chong Kok in Chinatown, insists that he will never sell fancy mooncakes. His Cantonese mooncakes are made with lotus seed paste cooked for eight hours with sugar and peanut oil added intermittently.

He says: "Some people say that life is boring if there's only lotus paste mooncakes. I beg to differ. We are Chinese and the MidAutumn Festival and Chinese New Year are the two most important dates in the calender. If you lose your culinary history, you will lose your culture."

He sells up to 30,000 mooncakes a day during the Mid-Autumn Festival and has booths at the various mooncake fairs.

Housewife Lily Ng, 58, says buying Teochew mooncakes from Poh Guan Cake House has become a tradition in her family.

She says: "I grew up eating la bia and la gao and they are still my favourites. When we visit my old uncles and aunts, we also give them boxes of these mooncakes. I don't fancy snowskin mooncakes as they are too sweet for me."

And for the younger generation, these mooncakes can be quite an eye-opener.

Sales executive Rochelle Goh, 28, was not familiar with Hainanese mooncakes until she saw them at Amethyst Pastry & Cakes' booth at the mooncake fair at Takashimaya Square.

She says: "I never knew these mooncakes existed until my parents told me about them. I do like the flavour, although I prefer those with lotus paste and salted egg yolk, or snowskin ones. I think the older folk prefer these traditional ones because they are not too sweet. I will buy them this year for my relatives."


Cantonese mooncakes

This is the most common style of mooncakes sold by bakeries and hotels. The round pastry, which is about 10cm in diameter and about 4cm thick, comes from south China's Guangdong province and is also eaten in Hong Kong and Macau. The filling is lotus seed paste or red bean and is likely to contain salted duck egg yolks. Modern versions have everything from fruit to meat in the filling, as well as different sizes, from mini ones to those as big as dinner plates.


-- PHOTO: CHOP TAI CHONG KOK

CHOP TAI CHONG KOK

Since 1935, this old-school chain has made its own mooncakes from scratch, with the lotus seeds cooked for eight hours with sugar and peanut oil to get a smooth paste. During the Mid-Autumn Festival period, it also sells snowskin (from $38.80 for a box of four) and mixed-nuts mooncakes (from $44.80 for a box of four). Prices start from $36.80 for a box of four plain lotus seed paste mooncakes, and these are sold year- round.

Where: Five stores, including 34 Sago Street; 01-265/267, Block 301 Ubi Avenue 1; and B2-05 Westgate, 3 Gateway Drive, as well as mooncake fairs at Jurong Point, nex and Takashimaya; varying opening hours

Info: Call 6227-5701 or go to taichongkok.com


Hokkien mooncakes

They were known as Scholar Cakes in the past and given to those taking the Imperial Examination to fill junior and senior administrative positions in the Imperial Court. The disc-like mooncakes came in different sizes and the largest would be given to the best scholar. Parents would also buy them for their children for good luck during the exam. The filling usually comprises winter melon, tangerine peel and melon seeds. Sesame seeds are sprinkled on the white pastry to make it fragrant. The cakes used to have savoury, minced-meat fillings as well, although it is seldom made that way now.


-- PHOTO: MARK ONG

TAN HOCK SENG

The shop specialises in authentic Chinese pastries, from beh teh soh (horse shoe pastry) to tau sar piah. Its version of the Hokkien mooncake ($6 each), with candied winter melon and candied tangerine peel, uses peanut oil instead of the traditional lard.

Where: 01-01 Far East Square, 86 Telok Ayer Street, open: 9am to 7.30pm (Monday to Saturday), 1 to 5pm (Sunday)

Info: Call 6533-1798


Hainanese mooncakes

Unlike Cantonese mooncakes filled with lotus seed paste and salted egg yolks, Hainanese ones are filled with dried fruit such as tangerine peel as well as sesame seeds and melon seeds. The slightly flaky skin is made with pork lard and salt. These mooncakes used to be sold at bakeries in Purvis Street as there was a large community of Hainanese living in the area.

HAINAN CUISINE & SNACKS

Among the Hainanese snacks and dishes sold at this stall in Toa Payoh, the tall red boxes with gold Chinese characters might be a familiar sight. These are Hainanese mooncakes from the famous Nam Tong Lee Confectionery, which has more than 100 years of history from its heyday in Purvis Street. While the shop closed in 2006, Mr Wong Eng How, who is in his 60s and from the third generation of the family, is keeping the tradition going. Now that the family no longer has a shop, the mooncakes are sold at Hainan Cuisine & Snacks as the stall owners are friends of the family. The mooncakes are made in a factory in Batam and brought in daily. A box of eight mooncakes costs $16.

Where: 01-35, Block 22 Toa Payoh Lorong 7, open: 6am to 2pm daily, except selected Mondays. Closed tomorrow

Info: Call 9338-1903 or go to www.facebook.com/hainan.xiaochi


-- PHOTOS: KUA CHEE SIONG, AMETHYST PASTRY & CAKES

AMETHYST PASTRY & CAKES

This 62-year-old Hainanese bakery started making mooncakes in the 1980s on top of its breads and cakes. The Hainanese Pepper Salt Crispy Mooncake ($5.50 each, $42 for eight) features a flaky white crust filled with a blend of dried fruit, nuts and spices. There is also a Hainanese Fusion Mooncake ($5.50 each, $42 for eight), which has the same ingredients as the pepper-and-salt version, but the skin is the same baked brown crust of Cantonese mooncakes. Sugar-free mooncake options are also available.

Where: 02-04 Greenridge Shopping Centre, Block 524A Jelapang Road and Takashimaya mooncake fair, varying opening hours

Info: Call 6759-2338


Teochew mooncakes

Yam-filled mooncakes with a flaky crust are the most common Teochew mooncakes sold in Singapore. However, there are other types of traditional Teochew mooncakes that old-school bakeries are still offering. La bia is from the Chaoshan region in China, where the Min Nan Teochew dialect originated. In Teochew, "la" refers to pork oil, which is used in both the mooncake's flaky skin and filling of green bean or red bean. Another type is la gao, which is a steamed black sesame cake. It comes plain or with green bean paste or yam filling. There is also another type of Teochew mooncake, a white disc that looks like a big biscuit and is filled with tangerine peel and sugar, flavoured with five-spice powder and topped with sesame seeds.

POH GUAN CAKE HOUSE

This shop started in 1930 making Hokkien pastries such as gong tng (peanut candy brittle) and pong piah (sweet pastry with maltose filling). When he was 15, Mr Chan Kim Ho, now 73, learnt his skills from pastry masters from different dialect groups. So do not be surprised if you see Cantonese-style mooncakes alongside Teochew ones at the shop in Upper Cross Street, where everything is painstakingly made from scratch. Highlights include the Teochew la bia (sweet or salty, $17); traditional Teochew mooncake ($7 or $12); and la gao ($7 or $12). He also sells durian la bia ($21) during the Mid-Autumn Festival period.

Where: 01-57, Block 531 Upper Cross Street; 01-15, 70 Jellicoe Road; and Takashimaya mooncake fair, various opening hours

Info: E-mail lpchan8@gmail.com


-- PHOTOS: DESMOND WEE, GRAND PARK CITY HALL, THYE MOH CHAN

PARK HOTEL GROUP

Apart from its snowskin mooncakes with Korean rice wine and cherry brandy truffle fillings, the hotel group also salutes tradition. Its selection includes cake-sized Teochew mung bean mooncakes ($48 each); red bean and winter melon mooncakes ($48 each) and Golden Yam with Single Yolk ($68 for four). The hotel uses vegetable oil instead of pork lard.

Where: Grand Park City Hall, 10 Coleman Street; Grand Park Orchard, 270 Orchard Road; Park Hotel Clarke Quay, 1 Unity Street; and Park Hotel Alexandra, 323 Alexandra Road; open: 11.30am to 9.30pm daily

Info: Call 6432-5555, go to parkhotelgroup.com/mooncakes or e-mail mooncake@parkhotelgroup.com

GIN THYE

The cake-maker also sells traditional Teochew cakes and pastries for weddings and birthdays. For the Mid-Autumn season, it has Da Lao Bing ($20 each) and the classic yam paste mooncake with single yolk (from $49 for a box of four), among others.

Where: Six outlets, including 423 Sembawang Road; 01-264, Block 152 Bukit Batok Street 11; and 01-491, 66 Kallang Bahru; and Takashimaya mooncake fair, varying opening hours

Info: Call 6257-1566 or go to www.ginthye.com

THYE MOH CHAN

It opened in Liang Seah Street in 1943 and is well known for its traditional Teochew pastries. It closed in 2011, but was relaunched by the BreadTalk Group the following year. Popular items include the traditional Teochew mooncake with maltose, white sesame, citrus strips and five-spice powder ($16.80 each); Teochew Double Delight ($28.80 for four), with red bean paste and a filling made with winter melon, melon seeds, citrus strips, white sesame, spring onion and glutinous rice flour; and Yuan Yang ($24.80 for a large one, $28.80 for four medium ones), with savoury mung bean paste, spicy pork floss and salted egg yolk.

Where: B1-11/12 Paragon, 290 Orchard Road and 01-45 Chinatown Point, 133 New Bridge Road, open: 10am to 10pm daily

Info: Call 6732-8858 (Paragon), 6604-8858 (Chinatown Point) or go to www.thyemohchan.com

THYE LEE CONFECTIONERY

Famous for its handmade confections such as tau sar piah, pong piah and peanut brittle, Thye Lee also offers Teochew mooncakes that are used for weddings and birthdays. Do not miss the la bia ($12) and the Double Delight ($20, available only during the Mid-Autumn Festival), with a layer of red bean paste on top of another layer made with crunchy winter melon and melon seeds. These pastries are best eaten warm.

Where: 01-1283, Block 108 Hougang Avenue 1, open: 9am to 6pm daily

Info: Call 6288-9514

• The Takashimaya Mid-Autumn Festive Celebrations mooncake fair at Takashimaya Square B2 is open from 10am to 9pm daily, until Sept 27.


Unusual baked mooncakes

For years now, hotels and other mooncake purveyors have come up with weird and wild fillings for snowskin mooncakes. Think bird's nest, cream cheese, cranberries and Oreo cookies.

Baked mooncakes have stayed mostly staid, with lotus paste and salted egg yolks being the hard-to-beat classic combination.

That has been changing and this year, hotels and bakeries are coming out with baked mooncakes that are more savoury than sweet.

One of the star ingredients this year is pork floss.

It is used in Patisserie G's (01-40/41 Millenia Walk, 9 Raffles Boulevard, tel: 6338-7578) pork floss, salted egg yolk and white lotus mooncake, as part of its premium gift box ($64 for eight, $8 each) which includes yuzu white lotus, and sake kasu cheesecake and salted egg yolk mooncakes with a buttery pastry.


-- PHOTOS: CHYN NONYA CAKES, REGENT SINGAPORE, PEONY JADE, SINGAPORE MARRIOTT TANG PLAZA HOTEL, THE PINE GARDEN, FOUR SEASONS HOTEL SINGAPORE

Chyn Nonya Cakes (01-616, Block 82 Marine Parade Central, tel: 6556-1311 or e-mail admin@chyn.com.sg), has Eucommia Chick Floss (photo 1, $56 for eight). The eucommia bark or du zhong is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The mooncake features salted bean paste with chicken floss and the mooncake skin is made with the bark and topped with pecans.

Summer Palace's (Level 3 Regent Singapore and hotel lobby, tel: 6725-3239 or e-mail foodbeverage.rsn@fourseasons.com) Parma ham and pork floss mooncake with assorted nuts (photo 2, $42 for two pieces, $66 for four) has also proven a winner since it was introduced five years ago. The mooncake includes 24-month cured Parma ham, assorted nuts, white sesame, winter melon, pork floss and orange peel.

The Regent Singapore restaurant's dim sum chef Leung Kwok Sing, 58, will bake up to 7,000 of it this year. On the combination of flavours, he says: "It is the perfect marriage between the subtle sweetness of the lotus paste and pastry with the savouriness of the pork floss."

Not unusual enough?

Try Peony Jade's (02-02, Block 3A Clarke Quay; Level M Keppel Club, Bukit Chermin Road; Takashimaya Square; tel: 6659-4159, or go to www.pjmooncakes.com) mini century egg pastry mooncakes (photo 3, $62 nett for eight). It is similar to century egg pastry from Hong Kong. Pickled ginger slices, white lotus paste and the century egg are encased in a flaky skin.

For a spicy kick, check out Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel's (Hotel entrance and Takashimaya Square, tel: 6831-4708 or e-mail mooncakes@marriott.com) jalapeno and chicken bak kwa mooncake with white lotus seed paste (photo 4, $62 for four). While it may sound an odd combination of flavours, the piquant pickled jalapeno goes well with the savoury bak kwa.

The Pine Garden bakery (01-2369 and 01-2329, Block 529 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10, tel: 6457-6159, www.pgcake.com) blends curry leaves into lotus paste for its baked mooncake with salted egg yolk (photo 5, $15.50 each).

And for a baked dessert, Four Seasons Hotel (Jiang-Nan Chun, and Takashimaya Square, tel: 6831-7220 or e-mail jnc.sin@fourseasons.com) has both coffee and tea lovers covered with its charcoal-roasted oolong tea (photo 6) and vanilla latte paste mooncakes (both cost $66 for a box of four).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 13, 2015, with the headline 'Dialect delights'. Print Edition | Subscribe