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Multifarious Flavors of Moon Cakes (月餅)

For the upcoming Moon Festival, a major holiday of East and Southeast Asia, moon cakes appear in as much diversity as the backgrounds of Asian immigrants at local Asian markets and bakeries.

Homemade or imported, time-tested or innovative, moon cakes present various styles at local Asian markets and bakeries, awaiting the arrival of Moon Festival.

Moon Festival is an East and Southeast Asian holiday that marks the eighth full moon of the lunar year, which generally falls in September or early October, and will be Monday this year.

Moon Festival dates back more than 3,000 years to China's Zhou Dynasty. It began as a moon-worshipping festival for the brightest full moon of the year thanks to the clear autumn sky, but gradually evolved into a holiday for family reunion.

The quintessential dessert for Moon Festival is conventionally categorized by region. However, each regional style continues evolving to create new subcategories.

For instance, the most commonly seen Cantonese style (廣式) usually contains a traditional filling such as lotus seed paste (蓮蓉), azuki bean (a dark red bean) paste(豆沙), or jujube (a dried fruit similar to dates) paste (棗泥), with a salted duck egg yolk in the center. But some modern-style moon cakes may have fruit jam or tea powder inside of their Cantonese-style crusts.

Such combinations are on display at Shang Kee Bakery, which has two branches in Cupertino and one in Milpitas. Pomelo (a citrus fruit called 柚子 in Chinese) is particularly a special flavor of Shang Kee's concoctions.

Most notably, Shang Kee offers mini moon cakes for individual consumption, in addition to those in the conventional size that's roughly equivalent to a large muffin and meant to be cut into slices for sharing.

Like Shang Kee, L'epi d'Or in Cupertino also carries homemade moon cakes with Cantonese-style crusts. But one of the flavors available in the Chinese bakery with a French name, black sesame paste (黑芝麻), seems like a Suzhou-style filling.

Suzhou-style moon cakes, also known as Shanghai-style for Suzhou City's proximity to Shanghai, distinguish themselves by having a flaky white crust, versus the Cantonese golden brown.

While black sesame paste goes with Suzhou style more often, azuki bean paste and jujube paste are two of the fillings Suzhou-style moon cakes always share with their Cantonese counterparts. 

As for Suzhou-style-only fillings, one of them, called 椒鹽 in Chinese, contains sugar, salt, pepper and crushed walnuts. Another, named 玫瑰 in Chinese, consists of dried rose powder and sugary nuts.

There are few boxes of Suzhou-style moon cakes in a brand name, Xingdongyang (新東陽) at the Cupertino and Milpitas stores of Ranch 99. More of them appear at Marina Food in Cupertino. The hot deli of Marina Food even offers homemade Suzhou-style moon cakes.

But at Marina Food, neither those just out of the oven nor the imported ones include the rose flavor, which only can be found in a brand called Gongdelin (功德林), available at Marina Grocery at 25 Milpitas Blvd. in Milpitas.

Besides Suzhou and Cantonese flavors, Silicon Valley's moon cakes may also come in Taiwanese, Vietnamese, gluten-free, or frozen styles.

Most moon cakes in Taiwan are actually either Cantonese-style or Suzhou-style. But there is a Taiwanese creation that has made its way to Asian markets in Silicon Valley. It has the Suzhou-style white crust but a different kind of filling, mung bean (a grain-sized bean in olive green color, called 綠豆 in Chinese) paste.

Many Vietnamese moon cakes also contain mung bean paste, but their crusts are Cantonese-style.

Some Vietnamese moon cakes have a typical Southeast Asian filling, which is made of durian, a type of fruit popular in Southeast Asia for its delicious taste, but repugnant to some people for its unusual smell.

Modernized durian moon cakes often come in gluten-free crusts made of rice flour.

Some gluten-free moon cakes are kept in room temperature, whereas others must be refrigerated or frozen, and therefore called snow-skin moon cakes, a 20th-century creation of Southeast Asia.

Snow-skin moon cakes may be filled with ice cream inside. Or an entire moon cake can be made of ice cream.

Either type of frozen-style moon cakes can be found in the freezing section of Marina Food, Marina Grocery and Ranch 99 stores.

Note: Chinese names of moon cake styles and flavors are attached to their English names so readers who don't speak Chinese can find the kind of moon cakes they wish to try by showing the article to salesclerks.

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