Falls Church’s Eden Center is gearing up for the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, Tet Trung Thu, with a celebration set for this Saturday at the shopping center. While the holiday is technically held today (the 15th day of the eighth month in the Han calander), several bakeries and delis in the shopping center have been preparing for more than a month now, taking and fulfilling orders for mooncakes, the traditional small pastries eaten during the festival.
Mooncakes, a Chinese bakery product, are sold seasonally by nearly all of the Eden Center shops that carry them. They are considered an indispensable delicacy by those who recognize the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.
“The Moon Festival is a traditional celebration for the harvest moon,” said Vinh Tran, the owner of Eden Center’s Cha Kim Phung Bakery. “And every year, when the Autumn moon comes, the people celebrate by eating a lot of mooncake and they pray to the gods every year. That’s our tradition and celebration.”
In order to relate it to those who are unfamiliar with the celebration in the U.S., Claire Nguyen, who works at Song Long Deli in the Eden Center, said that it’s “basically like Thanksgiving in America.” She said that people give mooncakes as gifts throughout the year and bring them over to houses they are invited to during the celebration.
“I would buy a few boxes to give my close family and friends,” Nguyen said. “I don’t necessarily have to go to their house. Maybe they have some guests. It just depends on each family. These days people aren’t that traditional, but they still do carry the simple ways of gifting [mooncakes].”
“This is a tradition is from a long, long time ago. Back in the old time,” Tran said. “The mooncake is eaten every time they harvest, during the harvest moon. They harvest the crops and they celebrate by eating mooncake. And it’s been happening from then until now.”
Typically, mooncakes are round, slightly less than four inches in diameter and between one and one and a half inches thick. The cakes are filled with one of several different ingredients, like sweet bean, lotus seed, jujube or five kernel paste, and the crust can have a chewy, flaky or tender texture.
The process for preparing the ingredients for mooncakes and making the mooncakes themselves can take several hours or days. “Making mooncakes is a very long process with a lot of very difficult techniques,” Tran said. In their finished form, mooncakes are usually cut into small wedges and accompanied by tea.
Once the mooncake is assembled, usually into a dough ball with filling for its center, the mooncake is pressed into its circle shape and imprinted with different Chinese characters.
Traditionally, the mooncakes have imprints of the Chinese characters for “harmony” or “longevity,” and some have additional decorations like imprints of the moon, flowers, vines or a rabbit. But because of globalization the designs on the imprint of mooncakes have become diversified.
Although almost all of the shops in the Eden Center order theirs from outside distributors, Tran and his team at Cha Kim Phung create mooncakes in house.
Because of that, they are able to offer potential customers over 30 different variations of the pastry and make them to order. They have been making their own mooncakes for over 20 years.
“We do very special orders and we make the mooncake from scratch, we grind the ingredients to make the paste and we mold the cakes,” Tran said. “Everything we do here is very, very good and we can compete with some other mooncake distributors nationwide. The thing is, the people love our cake because we make them fresh and the ingredients are fresh as well.”
Customers can choose from the different varieties that Cha Kim Phung has using an order form that is at the front of the store. Tran said that they sell thousands of cakes every year during the month leading up to the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.
That volume keeps his kitchen staff busy – he said they make up to 600 or 700 mooncakes each day around this time of year. In order to keep track of which filling is in each mooncake, Cha Kim Phung stamps a number on each mooncake with a purplish red ink.
Nguyen said that Song Deli carries over 15 different flavors of mooncake and get theirs from an outside distributor. She said that they also sell thousands of mooncakes around this time of year.
“There’s bean, there’s durian, there’s mixed,” she said. “There’s a lot of different flavorings. We offer a large variety here.” This past Monday, only a few days away from the festival, there were just a few boxes, each of which contains four mooncakes, left in the shop.