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Nutty as a Mooncake

September 24, 1997|MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SHANGHAI — In China, the mid-autumn festival is a time to celebrate family reunions, to exchange mooncakes and drink tea under a glowing harvest moon.

But the full moon brings out a secret dark side in some people. Call it recycling. Or call it the Great Mooncake Merry-go-round.

"I admit it. I give them away. Who can eat so many mooncakes?" said Lu Yin, 26, an accountant in Shanghai, who confessed that every box of cakes she presented this year was a passed-on gift from someone else.

The mooncake has become the Chinese version of Christmas fruitcake, a seasonal delicacy that many people consider much better to give than to receive. And like fruitcakes, they are passed from person to person, sometimes wending their way back to the original giver.

In the 14th century, Chinese rebels tucked secret messages inside the cakes urging the overthrow of their Mongolian rulers. Today, the message is more of glad tidings than promises of good eating. The traditional version is a cholesterol nightmare: a hockey puck-sized disk of dough, deep fried in pork fat and filled with salted duck egg yolks. The Tianjin Evening News carried a medical advisory during festival week (Sept. 11 to 17) warning people with diabetes, hypertension and heart trouble to abstain.

But that's not enough to kill off the cherished ritual of giving gooey mooncakes to family and friends, bosses and colleagues, to thank people for past favors or to sweeten them up for future ones. The largest of Shanghai's many mooncake makers, Xinhualou, sold 275 tons this year--nearly enough to let each of the city's 13 million people eat cake.

As incomes grow across China, more people can afford to give mooncakes, but few people can stomach more than one or two.

"They're so rich and thick, I usually only eat the dough," said Wang Fuhua, a tour guide. She said she's stuck with 48 extra cakes. "I've already given them to everyone I know. But today I received two more boxes." A television comedy demonstrated recipes to adapt mooncakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner--and how to tell if your own gift box has made its way back to you.

As tastes and traditions wax and wane, mooncake makers have had to come up with something tastier--and more healthful. Liu Cheng, an executive at a Beijing advertising company, said the secretaries in his office insist on a vegetarian low-fat type made only in Shanghai. Hong Kong shops experimented with mango, kiwi and cappuccino flavors. The well-known Daoxiangcun shop in Beijing offered 14 alternative fillings this year, including white lotus seed, strawberry and plum.

Most of the top bakeries in Beijing and Shanghai said they sold out, which means that plenty of people have boxes of mooncakes stacked on their shelves--and on their desks and in their refrigerators.

Wang Huirong, 34, an air-conditioner salesman, said, "I gave a few dozen and got a few dozen, but I don't believe in recycling gifts. What I don't eat, I just throw away." Linda Lu, a manager, has a better solution: Her family puts the extras in the freezer until the next year--then puts them back in circulation.

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