Last week I paid a visit to Manhattan’s Chinatown with my brother John. The neighborhood has changed much since we used to go there with our father 30 years ago, but some things remain the same, notably the tea parlors and Fung Wong Bakery. The latter is where I used to get blobs of chewy sweet rice cake for dessert after hitting up Wo Hop with my parents. It’s also where I tried my first mooncake.
After John and I caught up over dim sum at Nom Wah, I poked my head into Fung Wong to see dozens of mooncakes lining the case and stacks of red boxes proclaiming, “BEST MOON CAKES IN CHINATOWN N.Y.” Back in Queens, I shared the treat with some dear friends. The filling of fruit paste and preserved duck egg had an old-fashioned feel to it, more of a rough texture than others, whose smoother paste seems more processed. The real thing that set it apart though was the dough itself, which was far less dense and sweeter than any I’ve had in recent memory.
Here in Queens, and elsewhere the Mid-Autumn Festival falls on Monday, September 24. One of my favorite places to procure the festive cakes, which are traditionally filled with nuts or a combination of lotus paste and preserved egg yolks to represent the moon, is Flushing’s New Sun Mary Bakery. There are more than a dozens varieties and the staff is always willing to patiently translate the Chinese on the sticker on top. This year’s discovery: fragrant jasmine tea paste with pine nuts.
There are also smaller round mooncakes produced by bakeries like Sun Mary, notably a flaky little bun filled with jujube paste and egg yolk, known as zǎoní dànhuáng sū in Chinese. My favorite of these limited edition more homestyle treats though has to be the “fresh meat moon cake,” from Shanghai specialist, Diverse Dim Sum, which has a sideline in producing treats for various Chinese festivals. I discovered it a few weeks ago while leading a food tour whose guests were eager to try pork buns. Even though I cut my teeth on char siu bao, I tend not to include them on tours as they are rather heavy, but when the lady behind the counter at No. 12 told me that her little pork pies were still warm, I immediately ordered some for my guests.
I don’t usually put new items on tours, unless I have a strong hunch that they’re going to be good. These little rounds known as xiānròu yuèbǐng or “fresh meat moon cakes” were packed with pork and quite tasty. If you’re feeling ambitious you can learn how to make these meaty marvels yourself here, or you could just go to New York Food Court.
Like many mooncakes these flaky piping hot treats were stamped with Chinese characters on top. The red message reads “bùyīyàng,” which literally translates to “not the same,” or more aptly “different.” Indeed.
Golden Fung Wong Bakery, 41 Mott St., (917) 816-5820
New Sun Mary Bakery, 133-57 41st Rd., (718) 460-8800
Diverse Dim Sum, New York Food Court, No. 12, 133-35 Roosevelt Ave., (347) 925-5716