A HEAVENLY scent wafts into my room. It’s a familiar scent that conjures up images of family gatherings, sweet pastries, hot tea and glowing paper lanterns. Stealthily, I sneak downstairs following the aroma into the kitchen.
There on the table, sit rows of mini golden-brown round morsels, each moulded and decorated into shapes of animals. As I approach, their beady black eyes seem to stare right back at me. Even before I realise it, I’ve already scoffed down two piglets and a chicken!
These homemade jue zai peng (literally translated as piglet biscuits) are a staple in my family, courtesy of my aunt, Cindy Chong. She usually bakes them annually to be shared amongst friends and family. But if she doesn’t take the pains to hide them, they’re usually gone before the mooncake celebrations come around.
“It’s quite easy to make and cheaper than buying mooncakes from the store,” she points out.
What makes my aunt’s version a cut above the rest is the homemade red bean paste filling and the cute little animal shapes. For the paste, she’d slave over a low fire for hours and it’s usually made a few days prior to making the dough.
“If you’re making them for children, a simple biscuit without filling would suffice. But since we’re making this for everyone, why not go all out and make them with fillings? After all, we only make these once a year,” says my aunt, nonchalantly.
Everyone waxes lyrical over the mooncakes come Mid-Autumn festival, but not many would remember the understated jue zai beng so favoured by kids. I remember my mum buying them for us (my three cousins and I) when we were younger. They are usually displayed in colourful baskets and hung from the ceilings of old bakery shops.
These biscuits are typically made from leftover mooncake dough that bakers are unwilling to throw out. They would shape them into little piglets and place them in colourful baskets as a visual imagery of how pigs were transported to the market in the olden days.
Since it doesn’t contain any sweet filling, it’s always overlooked or given away for free when customers purchase mooncakes.
But to children, these tiny slabs of biscuits are the best. They’re favoured over mooncakes because they don’t contain sticky sweet lotus paste and salted egg yolk. Actually, they’re an enduring favourite of mine, and my mum would still buy them for me whenever she spots them at the pasar malam (night market) or old bakeries back home in Batu Pahat.
WORSHIPING THE MOON
Every year between the months of September and October, the Chinese community celebrate the auspicious Mid-Autumn festival.
It’s auspicious because it’s the eighth month on the lunar calendar and it’s believed that the full moon appears the brightest then. This celebration, like many other Chinese festivals, comes with legends and myths. But unlike legends of brave heroism with knights slaying dragons, the legend of the moon goddess is a sad one of self-sacrifice.
There are two versions of the folklore and both tell the tale of Chang’e who sacrificed herself to save the ones she loved. Chang’e was the wife of the great archer Hou Yi, who saved China from being scorched by shooting nine out of the 10 suns that rose over the land. The archer was given the elixir of immortality as a reward but here’s where the similarity ends.
In one version, a villain snuck in while Hou Yi was away to steal the elixir, and Chang’e drank it to prevent the potion from falling into the wrong hands. She then flew up to the heavens but chose the moon as her residence to be close to her husband whom she loved very much.
In another version, Hou Yi turned tyrannical after he was pronounced king by the grateful people. He wanted the elixir to live an immortal life.
However, Chang’e stole it on the 15th of the eighth month and consumed it to prevent the cruel king from being immortal. She fled to the moon when he discovered her treachery. He died shortly after, overcome by anger.
Learning of her selflessness, people began commemorating her by displaying fruits and cakes she liked outside of their homes. This is the significance behind praying to the moon on the 15th day on the eighth month of the lunar calendar.
Contrary to popular belief, mooncakes weren’t synonymous with the Mid-Autumn festival legend. Their popularity and ties to the festival are said to have begun during the Song dynasty (906-1279 AD).
The story behind the mooncakes is rather vague. But it’s generally known that traditional mooncakes were used by the Han Chinese to conceal messages sent to rebels during an uprising against the ruling Mongols on Mid-Autumn Day. After successfully overthrowing the Mongols, the Hans celebrated by consuming these sweet pastries with their families.
These days, the humble mooncakes are turning out to become luxury products, with most retailing above RM20 each! And every year, the price seems to be on the rise. Is it justifiable to pay so much for a palm-size pastry for the sake of symbolism? Perhaps not. But the escalating price hasn’t stopped bakeries from producing and packaging them in pretty boxes for a hefty sum.
Just the other day as I was shopping at my neighbourhood grocer, I was horrified to come across a box of four mooncakes retailing at RM150. What’s so special, I wondered aloud. “Oh this is a special edition packaging inspired by a comic series. What’s more, you can keep the tin and use it long after you finish the mooncakes,” she said in a perfectly rehearsed sales pitch.
So to save you from drilling a hole in your pocket this festive season, why not give my aunt’s delectable recipe a try? And if you, like my aunt, prefer a little filling in them, you can always purchase the red bean or lotus paste from any baking store. In addition, your kids will love you for allowing them to play with the dough!
Have a good Mid-Autumn Festival!
600g plain flour
600g golden syrup
100g peanut oil
1 ½ tbsp alkaline water
1.Mix golden syrup with peanut oil and alkaline water. Then, gradually add in flour. Mix until soft and well combined.
2.Wrap the soft dough with foil and rest it in the fridge for one day or overnight.
200g red bean paste/lotus paste (divided into 20g balls)
4 salted egg yolks (steamed and mashed)
Plain flour (for coating)
Egg wash (1 whole egg + 1 egg yolk, beaten)
1.Preheat the oven at 180°C and then turn it down to 150°C.
2. Add the salted egg yolks to the dough and knead until properly combined.
3. Divide the dough into 30g balls.
4.Flatten a ball of dough and use it to wrap a 20g ball of either red bean paste or lotus paste.
5.Fashion it into any animal shape you fancy.
6.Apply the egg wash with a brush and bake for 10-15 minutes at 150°C.
7.When it’s cooked, remove from oven and cool. Apply another layer of egg wash and put it back in the oven for a further 10 minutes until it turns golden brown.