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中秋快樂: A Mid Autumn Night's BBQ
Celestial Immortals, Barbecue Sauce, Moon Cakes, and a whole lot of Studio Ghibli
This is Yun Hai Taiwan Stories, a newsletter about Taiwanese food culture by Lisa Cheng Smith 鄭衍莉, founder of Yun Hai Taiwanese Pantry. If you found your way here but aren’t yet a subscriber, sign up here.
This month I’m celebrating Mid Autumn Festival the Taiwanese way, with chargrilled meats and Mung Bean mooncakes. I spend some time reflecting on the origin story of Mid Autumn and share imagery I associate with it. Scroll down for a Yun Hai BBQ sauce recipe, description of Taiwanese mooncakes, and, if so inclined, shop our 中秋節烤肉 Mid Autumn BBQ-ready sauces.
Perfect and Round and Bright
Circles are the shape of the moment, representing wholeness, togetherness, and, of course, the moon. Pomelos and mooncakes are being purchased in droves and Chinese grocery stores are packed in that “I’ve never felt more alive” way. Cooler weather is arriving and kids are returning to school. All are signs that Mid Autumn Festival 中秋節 is nearly here, a time to admire the full harvest moon, give thanks for the bounty of autumn, reunite with family and friends, and feel in our bones all that is sublime in the universe.
Mid Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (September 21st in 2021) and closely coincides with two other important celestial events that mark seasonal change: the Autumn Equinox—when the day and night are equally long—and the Harvest Moon—the first full moon of autumn or the last full moon of summer, depending on the year. The Harvest Moon rises quickly and reaches peak brightness soon after sunset several nights in a row, aiding in autumnal nighttime harvests. This earth-obliging moon has inspired many origin stories, versions of which are found throughout Asia. The most well-known Chinese legend is about Chang‘e, the Chinese moon goddess. She was married to the mythological archer Houyi, who shot down nine of the ten suns scorching earth (the actual solution to Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem) and was rewarded an elixir of immortality. There are many conflicting motivations in the lore (husband love, husband hate, selflessness, narcissism, aren’t they all the same), but one way or another, Chang’e consumes Houyi’s elixir and floats to the moon with only 玉兔, her jade rabbit, for eternity. In grief, Houyi offered her preferred foods and incense (and in some versions, himself) in the courtyard, while the moon edged ever closer, in longing.
Japan also celebrates the Mid Autumn moon in a holiday called Tsukimi, which falls on the same day as Mid Autumn Festival. The customs are a little different, but there's a parallel origin story in Japan about Kaguya-Hime, the Japanese Moon Goddess, an immortal who escaped from the moon to earth in the form of a human child, fell in love with terrestrial life, but was removed back to the moon when she experienced sorrow, all her memories erased. This story, one of the oldest in Japanese folklore, is depicted so beautifully in Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya; the imagery of the Mid Autumn moon is so powerful and brings forward emotions of joy, sorrow and awe. Kaguya and Chang’e are intimately connected; Mid Autumn marks the yearly anniversary of their ascension, and their stories remind us of the fleeting nature of life and love.
Mid Autumn Festival 中秋節 is one of the Three Major Festivals 三大節日 in Chinese culture, the others being Lunar New Year and Dragon Boat Festival. It’s celebrated across the Chinese Diaspora, traditionally a time to reunite with family, eat mooncakes, give thanks for each other, seek blessings, and enjoy the bounty of Fall (osmanthus, pear, duck, crab, taro, pumpkin, lotus root). It could be compared to Thanksgiving in sentiment, and I will gladly take Hairy Crab and fried Lotus Root over Turkey and Cranberry sauce.
一家烤肉萬家香 When One Home BBQs, Ten Thousand Homes Smell Amazing
In Taiwan, the traditional celebration has changed quite a bit since my mother lived there over 50 years ago; over the past three decades, the customary way to celebrate Chang’e has been to barbecue by her gracious light. Yes, on September 21st, hundreds of thousands of moonlight barbecues will take place simultaneously in Taiwan. Lillian, our COO, describes the experience this way: All I can smell is grill and all I can see is smoke. Families crowd around a small grill on pink stools with pomelo hats on every other kid.
This tradition is particular to Taiwan, having gone viral after soy sauce companies Wan Ja Shan and Kim Lan released competing commercials promoting their barbecue sauce, with celebrity appearances, catchy jingles and all. At the same time, supermarkets offered discounts on bbq ingredients, which somehow all mixed together in the public consciousness and moonlight family bbq reunion was cemented as a Taiwanese holiday must-do.
The slogan popularized by Wan Ja Shan in their commercials for bbq sauce is too good: 一家烤肉萬家香. Or, “When one home BBQs, ten thousand homes smell amazing.” Where do they say what happens when ten thousand homes BBQ? Does the whole world smell amazing? Does the mouth of Chang’e water?
View some of the original commercials below and read more about this holiday phenomenon in the Taipei Times.
Kim Lan 金蘭 Classic Ads, BBQ Sauce
Wan Ja Shan 萬家香 Commercials: When One Home BBQs, Ten Thousand Homes Smell Amazing & The Taste of Mom
Oh yeah.. and about that pomelo hat…every person in your family should get one. And can’t get enough of the Studio Ghibli vibes today.
Yun Hai Mid Autumn BBQ Sauce
Wan Ja Shan and Kim Lan are both soy sauce companies, and their BBQ sauces feature soy sauce or paste as the first ingredient. We came up with our own version of the sauces that started it all, and added some Taiwanese Sha Cha and Sesame Paste for a little extra moon power.
Maruso Soy Paste is a product that we love but haven’t talked about much—it’s made by one of the oldest soy sauce brewers in Taiwan, and they have a version made with Ghost Pepper powder. Delicious and just a touch spicy; not too 辣 hot and won’t distract you from your moon viewing. We also recommend Bullet sauce, a sesame-oil based garlicky chili crisp. This one will distract you from your moon viewing, but I think you’ll be happy about it.
5 garlic cloves, minced or grated
2 Tablespoon brown sugar, add more to taste if you prefer sweeter sauce.
2 Tablespoon white sesame paste (we suggest Dong He, but we’re sold out) or peanut butter
3 Tablespoon Taiwanese Sha Cha (Bull Head)
1 Teaspoon Black vinegar, or to taste
1/4 Cup water
Optional: Add a bit of Bullet Chili for the extra spiciness or serve on the side.
In a medium size bowl, mix together the garlic, brown sugar, Maruso soy paste, white sesame paste (or peanut butter), sha cha, and black vinegar until incorporated.
Then add water, tablespoon by tablespoon, stirring to incorporate each time, until the mix becomes a smooth jam like consistency. Use this to marinate meat for at least four hours. For bone-in meats like chicken wings, we recommend that you marinate overnight. Also use this sauce to baste meat and vegetables while on the grill.
Serve grilled meats with lettuce leaves for a cool wrap.
Suggested BBQ assortment
Corn, mushrooms, shrimp, short ribs, chicken thighs and wings, thinly sliced pork shoulder, tian bu la 甜不辣 (fishcake tempura), green beans, Taiwanese sausage 台灣香腸, squid, smelt, tofu (stinky tofu)
Other Suggested Sauces
We’ve got a whole collection of BBQ ready sauces here. Soy Pastes are a great marinade ingredient—sweet, sticky, and almost smoky in flavor. Peanut oil is great for brushing meats during grilling, and sesame oils add flavor and aroma as a finishing touch. For added fragrance, cut a scallion into a little basting brush by slicing up the white end while leaving the greens intact and use this to apply the oil at the very end. Bullet Chili Crisp and Empress Hot Sauces can be used as a marinade ingredient, brushed on while grilling, or served as a condiment for dipping.
And finally, the grand finale, the thing I’ll be eating for breakfast every morning this week when no one is looking, the Taiwanese mooncake. A sweet treat representing the full moon twice over. First, by its round shape, and second by the round egg yolk tucked inside.
These sweet treats may look unassuming (a simple round biscuit-looking thing with a red stamp), but they are notoriously difficult to make, a combination of Taiwanese and Japanese baking styles. The outer crust is puff pastry that’s layered in a similar manner to scallion pancakes. Fillings are typically a selection of mung bean paste, taro, fried shallots, braised minced meat, mochi (instead of the man in the moon, Taiwanese see a rabbit kneading mochi, please feed me), and a salted duck egg yolk. The mix is a wonderful version of umami and sweet, 鮮 and 甜.
There are many many different styles of mooncakes and we love them all. For a quick guide and a few recipes, see Clarissa Wei’s recent article in the NY Times, where she explains that “if the intention of a mooncake is to show off the best of a region, then what it is made of will always be up for interpretation.”
The Yun Hai team’s favorite Taiwanese-style mooncakes in NYC are made by Yeh’s Bakery in Flushing. I’m always shocked at the volume this place can churn out. It’s a tiny storefront with barely enough space to stand—a couple of cold cases take up most of the interior space and a few giant cake catalogs occupy the rest. Yet, there’s a constant stream of cars lining the block picking up an endless supply of goodies.
Don’t miss their Boston Cream Pie if you’re there—it’s the fluffiest, most delicate thing I’ve ever had. This is also round and looks like a moon. Not a traditional Mid-Autumn food, but a good excuse to pick one up anyway.
Regarding our Stock Levels
You *might* have noticed that almost everything we carry is out of stock. This *might* be the second or third time you’re noticing it. You’re not imagining it: we have trouble staying in stock. You all are loving the product and buying more and more, and though we try to plan accordingly, we still sell out. This is a great problem to have. But, we are trying to solve it and ask for your patience while we level up. In the past month, we’ve opened up an additional warehouse in LA and shipped our first 40-foot container full of more product than we’ve ever ordered at one time, times ten. Bear with us—the products should all be in stock by early October.
In the meantime, we still have amazing products that haven’t gotten as much love from us as we’d like. Some of those are included in our Mid Autumn Collection. Go check them out! In particular, I love Bullet Chili Crisp. If Su is Lao Gan Ma’s more bookish cousin, Bullet is her wilder younger sister.
May your holiday be as perfect and round and bright as the moon,
Lisa Cheng Smith
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