“It’s either 197 or 297,” says my friend Maria as we get off the streetcar in East York. We are pursuing a tip that she received about where to find good mooncake in Toronto.
With the Chinese mid-Autumn festival just around the corner, we are eager to get our mooncake fix. I had been lamenting the loss of Kim Moon Bakery in Chinatown, where I used to buy my mooncake, and Maria suggested checking out her acquiantance’s suggestion.
“It’s a house, so there’s no advertising or anything. He says we might see people coming out with mooncake boxes,” she adds.
There are no people with mooncake boxes streaming out of house 197. But there are empty cartons of preserved salted duck eggs stacked neatly on the front porch of house 197. “It’s a good sign. This must be it,” I tell Maria. (Traditional Cantonese-style mooncake is stuffed with red bean paste and may contain a whole salted duck egg yolk.)
We knock on the door. Someone peeks from the blinds on the front window and partially opens the door.
“Hello. We were told you have mooncake?,” Maria asks the slightly built Chinese woman who is holding the door ajar. She looks bewildered by the question. I can imagine her thinking, “Who are these two Asian women looking for mooncake? Why are they asking me for mooncake?”
Maria explains how we ended up on her doorstep — she had been talking to a market vendor in East Chinatown about how she can’t seem to find good mooncake in Toronto and he said that his neighbour makes them.
Our credentials having been established, the woman invites us into her home. “Come in. Come in,” she says, directing us to the front room. We gasp as we see trays of freshly-baked mooncakes in their golden and glistening glory. There’s also an elderly Chinese woman sitting on the sofa who looks surprised upon seeing us. “My mother,” the woman says. After a brief introduction (the baker’s name is Jean), we go back to gushing about the mooncake.
“Can we buy some?” asks Maria.
“Oh, they’re not for sale,” says Jean. She explains in halting English that they’re for her family and friends.
“We can’t buy even one?” we ask, our faces registering disappointment.
“My family is big. My husband has nine brothers and sisters,” Jean says.
“Maybe you can spare one?” Maria asks again, raising her index finger to illustrate the number one.
This time, Jean takes one mooncake and proceeds to slice it on a cutting board. “No, no. We want to buy,” Maria and I both exclaim. The last thing we want is to be freeloaders.
“Taste, taste. This is mixed nuts,” Jean says, bringing the sliced mooncake closer to us. We each take a slice. I take a bite. It is delicious and unlike any I have tasted. My mooncake experience has been limited to red bean and lotus bean paste, so this was new to me.
“It has ten nuts,” says Jean with a smile as we compliment her on the mooncake.
“Do you also make red bean and egg?” I ask. In response, Jean reaches out, gets one mooncake and picks up her knife. “No, you don’t have to,” we say, but she proceeds to slice it in wedges. “It’s ok. It’s ok. Taste,” she says.
The salty egg yolk is surrounded by a pillow of pure, slightly sweet red bean paste. You could tell it has no added filling and is not loaded with sugar, unlike the store-bought ones. I wanted to wolf down the entire thing right there and then.
“This is so good,” Maria and I couldn’t help but gush.
“You can order and pick up tomorrow. Thirty dollars for four mooncake,” Jean suddenly tells us. If it had been some kind of test, we apparently passed. We thank her effusively and place our order.
Jean proceeds to wrap the rest of the sliced mooncakes and hands them to us. We offer to pay and she declines again. We thank her repeatedly, shake the hand of her mother who was grinning at us and say our goodbyes.
Out on the street, Maria and I burst out laughing. We are laughing at our luck. We are laughing at our unexpected adventure. We are laughing because we are happy that hospitality and community spirit remain alive in a big city like Toronto.
We both agree that it pays to talk to people. And yes, it pays to knock on the door and take a chance.
Five Mooncake Facts
- Mooncake is typically eaten during the mid-Autumn Festival, which has its origins in moon worship during the Zhou dynasty. Ancient emperors believed that worshiping the moon goddess would bring a bountiful harvest. This year’s festival falls on Monday, Sept. 24.
- Mooncakes symbolize unity and are usually eaten during family gatherings celebrating the change of season.
- There are many varieties of mooncake these days — not just the traditional ones made of red bean paste, black bean paste, lotus paste and yellow bean paste. There are now mooncakes with green tea, chocolate, ice cream, tiramisu, cream cheese, and durian.
- The method of baking mooncakes differ throughout China, Taiwan, Hong Kong Vietnam, Malaysia, and other places with significant Chinese diasporas.
- Mooncakes are typically molded into the shape of a chrysanthemum and are three to four inches in diameter.