This time of year is madness for the Lai siblings, Jessie and Wayne. Their phone is running hot, the oven is on almost full time for weeks, and customers are streaming out of the door with huge, ornate boxes. The Moon Festival is coming up and the Lais’ Cabramatta bakery, Dainty Taipei Bakery, is one of the only places in Sydney that makes fresh mooncakes.
The Moon Festival, or the Mid-Autumn Festival, is a huge East and South East Asian celebration. Families and communities come together during the festival to celebrate the harvest and offer sacrifices to the moon. Mooncakes, which are pastry packages filled with sweet pastes and salted duck egg, are an indispensable part of the celebrations.
Traditionally mooncakes are bought as gifts for family and friends (they symbolise various favourable fortunes in different cultures). In Sydney you’ll see them glistening in their plastic wrappings in Asian bakeries; in Chinatown and Eastwood street stalls; and in Market City’s mooncake-dedicated bazaar. Almost all of those are imported from China. They’re often stale and some have hardened centres.
A fresh mooncake is a completely different experience. Dainty Taipei Bakery’s are made traditionally; they are soft, moist, gelatinous at the centre and crumbly at the edges, almost like an old-school piecrust, but inside there’s salted duck egg and pastes of sweet jujube (a Chinese date), lotus root, red beans, mung bean and pineapple.
Jessie says that same pineapple paste should be recognisable to anyone who’s been to Taiwan. Not only is it ubiquitous in Taiwanese households and the county’s famous night markets, it’s also a major part of other celebrations. If someone is getting engaged, married, giving birth or experiencing any positive event, you give them cake.
As well as the crumbly pineapple cakes Wayne (a pastry chef since age 18) makes Taiwanese biscuits with almond or chocolate; time-intensive flaky mung-bean buns; coconut puffs; soft taro buns; and crumbly, sesame-topped cakes with sweetened peanuts, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and hazelnuts.