It’s clear that Ha Yuan isn’t your traditional Chinese restaurant. Neither are their mooncakes.
This post isn’t about Ha Yuan the restaurant but Ha Yuan’s mooncakes. I implore the patience of my Chinese readers who may be puzzled at the timing of this post; the Mooncake Festival did end last month, after all. But I receive a beautiful box of mooncakes not too long ago from Suzy Lee, whose family owns Ha Yuan.
Suzy was based in Singapore for some time and while there, she was enthralled by the sheer variety of mooncakes available and their status as a “gourmet food gift.” Upon her return to Manila and eager to contribute to the Ha Yuan menu, she espied the oven, the only “area” of the kitchen that her Amah (grandmother) and parents didn’t lay claim to. This appliance proved to be Suzy’s aha! moment. “… so I thought, mooncakes!” Suzy recalls excitedly. “I wanted to make some that were as elegant as those in the hotels minus the exorbitant prices [and] I also wanted to do something that hadn’t been tried before.”
Suzy’s grandmother, whom she refers to as Amah, started Ha Yuan and was her toughest critic. It was imperative that she got her Amah’s approval before her mooncakes could be sold at the restaurant.
Upon first glance, these mooncakes appear to adhere to tradition. They are round and customary in size, some big, some small, their imprinted exteriors glistening mutely, as if illuminated by moonlight. Each mooncake possesses skin that’s thin but sufficiently pliant to protect its precious treasure. Whether bitten into (outré?) or divided deliberately into wedges, the visual effect is immediate and identical: stark and stunning.
Lotus paste simultaneously sticky and sweet ensconce a single egg yolk, its saffron-yellow center scintillates. The Black Sesame mooncake’s dark heart beats with a golden yolk, and the Salted Egg Custard in Buttercrust is like eating sweet gold surrounded by a soft cookie.
Suzy makes mooncakes that deviate from tradition while honoring their storied past. Contemporary ingredients like green tea and peanut butter have ignited her imagination and taken flight with an eye to intention and restraint. Thus, a Green Tea mooncake with Cranberries is subtle, though it initially scandalized her Amah. The tea’s characteristic astringency is tamed by the berry, a sweet and tangy reciprocity.
Although my forever-favorite mooncake variant is the Lotus Double Yolk, my new favorite mooncake flavor is Suzy’s Choco Peanut Butter, an almost too-casual name for such a delicacy. But a delicate flavor it manages to accomplish with aplomb. A peanut flavor pulled back and prettified, spun with sugar and making a perfect pair packaged in an almost elastic chocolate skin crust.
As a self-taught maker of mooncakes, Suzy is industrious and ingenious. A key component of the crust, golden syrup, is something she makes herself and which is aged for months. In addition, while the lotus paste and red bean paste are traditional mooncake flavors and easy enough to procure ready-made, Suzy persists in making them herself. “The ones I’ve tried are too sweet,” she explains, “and although the taste isn’t difficult to achieve, it involves lengthy boiling and stirring times.”
My main reason for eating mooncake is the salted duck egg center. I slice precisely so I can keep the yolk whole and then nibble it as my prize. Suzy, who delights me when she reveals that she’s a longtime DCF reader states, “I know you love eggs and that these are your favorite mooncake ingredient.” Her mooncake’s yolk centers are – contrary to others – supple and hold their shape, not crumbly. This is wholly because of Suzy’s eye for quality (“Went through different suppliers while taste testing,”) and a secret method she shares with me but which I promise not to divulge. I’ll just say her extra work is more than worth it.
As Suzy has achieved success with her mooncakes, she’s rightfully pleased as well that her Amah approves. “This year, she said mine were the best she’s ever tasted in Manila,” Suzy beams.
I’ll have to agree.
Another mooncake post:
Swoon For The Moon (Cakes)