Moon Cake Surprise

The mid-autumn festival is approaching and all over Vietnam moon cake stalls are springing up.

We found this one when we stopped for petrol at the weekend.

Darling Man was surprised to see a stall so early. The actual date of the mid autumn festival this year is September 30. But moon cakes, it seems, are a bit like Christmas decorations — appearing earlier every year.

“Oh yum,” I said. “Moon cakes.”

And then I remembered my first encounter with moon cakes, back in 2007.

Some students had given me some beautiful moon cakes — and Vietnamese moon cakes can be fabulously ornate.

My mum and her friend were due to visit, so I kept the cakes, in their lovely decorative box, to share with them.

The night mum and her friend arrived, I took them up to the rooftop terrace of the guesthouse I was staying at, turned on all the fairy lights and began cutting up the moon cakes in the dim light.

It was going to be a lovely exotic introduction to Vietnam’s charms.

Like synchronised swimmers, we all lifted a piece of moon cake to our lips and bit into it. And all at the same time we made a noise of disgust.

There was something majorly wrong with our cake.

I ejected my mouthful of half-chewed cake and examined it. I could see seeds and maybe nuts but that didn’t explain that weird horrible taste. I put a tiny piece back in my mouth to see if it was an “off” taste that made the cake so offensive.

I held up the moon cake packet to the light and read the expiry date. The cake should have been OK.

Then I tried to read the ingredients. I spotted the words “heo” and “ga”, the Vietnamese words for pork and chicken.

And then I announced the verdict. The cakes have meat in them.

(People have since asked me why I didn’t read the list of ingredients before I tried the cake. But who on earth would think to check whether cake has meat in it???)

We didn’t finish the moon cakes that night and we certainly didn’t buy any more. The following year when the mid-autumn festival came around again I was not keen to try another moon cake.

By this time I had made some Vietnamese friends (and met Darling Man). And my Vietnamese friends urged me to give moon cakes a second try. Moon cakes with salted eggs were highly recommended. You could even splash out and buy moon cakes with two salted eggs!

Um… blerch. Salted egg in a cake is almost as bad as meat.

Finally, my Vietnamese friends told me there were moon cakes available that had no meat and no salted egg.

I found one and I tried it and, let me tell you, the “vegetarian” moon cakes are gooooooood.

In the matter of moon cakes, I’m firmly in the Western-taste camp.

My first moon cake of 2012 was one of my favourite types of Vietnamese moon cake – a white one filled with lotus seed paste.

Darling Man opted for a roast chicken with ham version. With one salted egg.

For me, the white moon cake was definitely the winner.

Now I’m on the lookout for the no-egg coconut paste moon cake I remember.

Vietnam’s moon cakes and the mid-autumn festival is a relic of Chinese rule. Yet Vietnam’s moon cakes are very different from the hipster moon cakes that are all the rage in our old home of Singapore. (Have a look at some of the fabulous moon cake varieties available now in Singapore – choc-chip lavender mousse moon cake anyone?)

The Chinese call their white moon cakes “snow skin” moon cakes. It’s a lovely poetic name.

The Vietnamese name of the white moon cakes, banh deo, is more practical. Banh means cake and deo is a word that’s hard to translate … Darling Man says it describes the flexible stickiness of uncooked dough. Online translators say deo means plastic. Another friend says deo means sticky.

They taste so much better than their translated name. But, still, I think everyone should try a meat surprise moon cake at least once in their life.

Would you try one?

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11 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Now wrangling a cross-cultural relationship and two third culture kids.


  1. These sounds so weird and awesome. I wish you could ship me a sampler box 🙂
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..Travel the World Through Food

    • Barbara says:

      I’m tempted to try to ship you some, Stephanie. The only thing that’s stopping me of the thought of how a meat moon cake would taste after a month at sea. I’m not sure a meat cake would pass US customs, either. I certainly wouldn’t try sending one to Australia, which has very strict quarantine regulations. (We need to protect our koalas.)

  2. i think i’d go veggie, too! gorgeous photos!
    wandering educators recently posted..Disney World on a Budget

  3. I tried lots of different flavour mooncakes at a mall last year. There are so many varieties, black sesame, red bean, chocolate, snowskin, white lotus paste…They look so amazing but I just didn’t get the taste. It shows how our western tastebuds are so different.
    21st Century Mummy recently posted..Freaky Friday: Hungry Ghosts

    • Barbara says:

      Maybe you should have started with meat moon cakes. Then the rest would have been delicious by comparison!

      But I know what you mean. When I was in Japan I bought an amazing looking cake that looked like it was dusted with green icing sugar. But it was dusted with green flour — it was AWFUL!!! I nearly choked, too. The taste was such a surprise I inhaled some of the flour and spent several unattractive minutes thinking I was going to die on a Kyoto footpath!

  4. My favorite Moon Cake is from Haagen-Daz. Mango sorbet for the “yolk”, coffee ice cream filling, and covered in chocolate. A white chocolate medallion had Chinese writing on top. But I guess it’s far from traditional, right?
    Malaysian Meanders recently posted..Kids Top Picks for Indoor Fun in Penang

  5. Margaret says:

    I think I’d love the vegetarian moon cakes. The flavors you mentioned sound really delicious. They’re so beautiful to look at, too. I love the designs on top.

  6. Mark Wiens says:

    I was in China last year for Mid-Autumn festival and there was some serious mooncake madness going on. I’m with you, minced pork and its oil in a cake is something I don’t fully enjoy, but I do like the ones with nuts. Also, there’s no way I can eat a mooncake without washing it down with hot tea.
    Mark Wiens recently posted..Accommodation in Seoul – 3 Great Options

  7. robin says:

    They sound fantastically strange! I was reminded of my chicken cake experience in Tangier:
    robin recently posted..Las Catedrales

  8. Jenny says:

    Hey Barbara,
    I can’t measure how helpful your blog was for our journey through Vietnam from which we came back just yesterday.
    Because of your blog post we excitedly aquired some mooncakes (one with black sesame and the other with lotus seed, but we didn’t taste them yet) from a lady in Hanoi who told us they would be eaten to celebrate “the children”. As our versions of English weren’t really compatible, I would be very happy if you could tell us more about the backgrounds of mid-autumn festival and these ominous cakes!
    Jenny recently posted..Und zum Schluss: Ein Besuch bei Onkel Ho

    • Barbara says:

      Hi Jenny, I’m so glad my blog was helpful! You’ll have to let me know how your moon cakes taste. I haven’t tried a black sesame one, I’m going to look out for one of those!

      The mid-autumn festival in Vietnam is the result of China’s rule. It’s a harvest festival … and somehow it’s considered a children’s festival. You might have seen a lot of lanterns around. Children usually walk around with a paper lantern with a candle inside, although now there’s all kinds of plastic ones with flashing lights. I will do some more research on the festival for you. Our daughter wants us to buy some lanterns, so we should learn what the festival is all about.

  9. Jenny says:

    Update: I still didn’t have one bite from any moon cake, but the children in my daughter’s class decreed the black sesame filling “delicious”, the lotus paste “bah”.
    What really surprised me: My daughter’s friend (our future son-in-law, if they hold it up for the next 8 years…) inquired for moon cakes in our local Vietnamese store (where they sell mostly vegetables, rice cookers and flowers, which seems to be a business niche reserved solely for Vietnamese citizens in Germany) and they promptly ordered some for the next day!
    These were apparently filled with the salty egg you mentioned, though, and did not convince. Still, thumbs up for the 24-hour-import of local specialties!
    Jenny recently posted..Spartipp: 20 % Rabatt auf alle Lonely-Planet-Reiseführer!

    • Barbara says:

      Wow, moon cakes in Germany! I knew there are many Vietnamese people in Germany but I didn’t know they made moon cakes there. You should be able to get some fantastic Vietnamese food there — try asking the staff in the local Vietnamese store where the best Vietnamese restaurant is. Better still, ask them where they eat. Let me know where you end up – Viel Glück!

  10. Bleargh to the cake with meat in it! You’re right, I mean who does check a cake for meat?! Well at least now you know, and I’d be firmly joining you in the vegetarian camp when it comes to moon cakes. At least that’s more salted eggs for Darling Man.
    Tom @ Waegook Tom recently posted..The Fantasy Five: South East Asia

  11. Timely post! My husband just bought a moon cake last night, and I was trying to figure out what the heck was inside it. Going by your post, I’m guessing it was one of the two-salted-egg-variety. I didn’t have the nerve to try it…
    Ruth@FacetiousFarang recently posted..A Weekend of Weirdness

    • Barbara says:

      I have no idea whether Thailand does the meat surprise moon cakes. The salted egg isn’t that bad … but it’s not really cake-y in my opinion.

      • Jenny says:

        Sooo, I finally tasted one! I found a salted egg inside and some undefinable dried-fruit-like thingys… and I declare this variety as delicious! Although, of course, not precisely cake-y 🙂 More like a hearty christmas fruit bread?

        Barbara, there are indeed a lot of Vietnamese living in East Germany. And I am proud to say that we are regular visitors in a Vietnamese restaurant in our quarter, where they not only have delicious summer rolls, but also really child friendly staff (for a while our children expected lollipop gifts from waiters as normal in every restaurant…).

        Indeed, the food was the main argument for our recent holidays in Vietnam – and in that point, we were not disappointed!
        Jenny recently posted..Zwei Wochen Neuseeland – was würdet ihr dafür geben?

  12. Billy says:

    One of my students gave me a Moon Cake today that he made at home. It has meat in it, orange peels and other things that I cannot quite place but it is delicious. I like trying exotic foods and I would classify Moon Cake as exotic.

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