Mid-Autumn Festival: A Time to Feast and Moon Gaze

IMG_4015.JPG

The earliest recording of mid-Autumn celebrations in Chinese literature dates back to the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.), with a vague line mentioning people gathering and gazing at the moon. This means that origins of today’s Mid Autumn Festival are often hazy with varying storylines and characters—like a rabbit and goddess on the moon—but what we do know is that people gathered together to celebrate the full moon, which often represents unity. One ancient Chinese poem illustrates the themes of family and unity: “May we live long and share the beauty of the moon together, even if we are hundreds of miles apart.”

The holiday is a big deal for Chinese families—it’s the second largest holiday after Chinese New Year. Similar to Thanksgiving, it’s come to represent celebrating the harvest and is a time of family gatherings. It falls on the 15th day of the 8th month on the lunar calendar, which ends up being some time in September or October on the Gregorian calendar. This year’s holiday is on Friday, September 13. 

These days, families may have different methods of celebrating, but most will enjoy a meal together, followed by mooncake and tea for dessert. They then take a walk after to gaze at the moon together. In some regions of China, celebrations may even involve lanterns and lion dances.

Zai Lai’s Chef Jimmy always heads home to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival with his parents and siblings, and sometimes extended family as well. They have an eight to 10 course feast every year to celebrate the harvest and make offerings to their ancestors, with various dishes that represent air, land and earth. For air, there is usually a chicken and vegetable dish; for land, they pick up fire roasted pork from Chinatown; and for earth, a platter of mixed vegetables like shitake mushrooms, leafy greens and “fat choy” hair moss fungus—items that are homophones for good fortune or other auspicious phrases in Chinese. Other usual suspects include fried shrimp, vegetarian rolls with tofu skin and sauteed mushrooms, as well as stewed abalone. The feast is plentiful, to represent an abundant harvest offering ahead of rough times before winter.

Chef Jimmy’s parents spend two to three days prepping the feast, particularly the abalone dish, which involves reconstituting dried abalone by steaming it with a fresh rack of pork ribs every day. One item they do not make though, aside from the fire roasted pork, is mooncake. They attempted creating them from scratch one year, before deciding the labor intensive pastry was not quite worth the effort.

Homemade, preservative-free pineapple cakes. Get them before they sell out!

Homemade, preservative-free pineapple cakes. Get them before they sell out!

Mooncakes, as we mentioned earlier, are traditionally eaten around the holiday. The Chinese pastry is often filled with pastes like red bean, green tea or lotus seed, as well as salted egg yolk and nuts for fancier versions. Taiwanese people typically eat sweet versions of mooncakes, while southern Chinese may prefer savory flavors.

Like many Chinese food items, the origin of the mooncake is much disputed. Some say they were created for revolutionaries to pass secret messages and overthrow the Yuan Dynasty, but this is not actually recorded in historical Chinese literature. Other legends involve a Tang Dynasty emperor enjoying the snack under a full moon with his consort, and renaming it to “mooncake” because its original name was too unpleasant and did not match the atmosphere. People often say mooncakes were made round, symbolizing the reunion of family. Customarily, people will not buy mooncakes for themselves, but as gifts to relatives and friends. 

If all this talk of food made you hungry, we’re here to help you partake in this delicious holiday without prepping for two to three days, like Chef Jimmy’s parents! Swing by Zai Lai and pick up a Dumpling Making Kit for 2*, so you can wrap and fold dumplings with your family and friends. The kit consists of dumpling skins, pork dumpling filling, dumpling sauce and dumpling folding instructions. For a large group of people, simply purchase multiple kits. While you’re at it, grab one of the limited red bean or green tea mooncakes** we’re selling, or a homemade pineapple cake!** Don’t forget to look up at the full moon on your way home.

*Available through Saturday, Sept. 14.

**While supplies last.

Origins of Beef Noodle Soup

+ Zai Lai’s homestyle take on it

BeefNoodleSoup_045-WEB.jpg

When you dig into the origins of BNS (that’s “beef noodle soup” for the uninitiated), you’ll find that mixed opinions dominate the space. The term typically conjures up the molasses brown soup, chock full of beef shank and noodles, that is hailed as Taiwan’s national dish. Even within Taiwan, its city of origin is disputed: Did the first bowl appear in Kaohsiung or Tainan?

Regardless of the city, the aromatic bowl is commonly believed to be inspired by Sichuan cuisine, made by Sichuan natives who fled to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War. Early eateries that sold the dish usually had signs that called their cuisine Sichuanese, and often included common Sichuan street eats like steamed pork ribs with rice powder and pork knuckle noodles as additional menu items. In fact, many Taiwanese who had resided there for many generations prior to the war didn’t even eat beef, since cows were seen as critical farm workers in agricultural pre-war Taiwan, and not as a source of food. Chef Edward’s own grandfather did not eat beef.

Over the years, the dish has evolved into countless forms. From the original red braised and light broth styles to bowls rich with tomato or eaten with rice noodles, beef noodle soup is always changing, much like the rest of Taiwanese cuisine. Popular iterations nowadays include half tendon and half meat, and some places will even throw in tripe. Hard to believe it was once served with just soup or soup with noodles because some customers couldn’t afford the meat—Taiwan yellow cows are still a prized commodity. 

At Zai Lai, we serve a homestyle red-braised beef noodle soup with tender beef shank that is stewed for half a day with spices like star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fennel, sugar, dried chilis and Sichuan peppercorns. We also add carrots, scallions, garlic, ginger and sugar for a beefy, vegetal complex flavor. The texture of the soup must have enough body to coat your tongue, with soy sauce, douban sauce and rice wine to finish out the flavor.

No bowl of Taiwanese beef noodle soup would be complete without pickled mustard greens, so we make ours in house for the best flavors to brighten the bowl. We salt press and ferment them for the perfect crunch and tang, drawing out the meaty flavor of the soup. We then add wok fried vegetables and a healthy sprinkling of cilantro and scallions for extra aroma and freshness. Our noodles are cooked just past al dente for the right amount of chew, or what Taiwanese people have dubbed “Q”—the ultimate goal for every noodle. When you’re digging in, feel free to slurp...it’s cool In Taiwanese culture!