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Many moons ago, mooncakes were a dark secret

One experienced mooncake-maker in Hanoi has seen the art and craft wax and wane, and do it again.
Dung’s hands move with practiced ease.

He has been doing this for 50 years and the dough is like putty in his hands.

After some kneading he cuts the dough into smaller pieces and uses the mold to shape them. A thin layer of white flour flies into the air every time he taps one piece of dough out of the wooden mold.

Flour is everywhere. On the table. On his apron. On his sweaty, chef’s hat.

And from the cloud of dough dust, a moon emerges. A white, sticky rice mooncake is ready to be baked and keep its tryst with the fullest, biggest moon of the year – the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, celebrated as the “Mid-Autumn Festival.”

About 20 people are busy in the “workshop,” mixing fillings, shaping dough and baking new batches of cakes. They are focused and don’t speak much. The sound of wooden molds being tapped on the table and the sizzling sound when egg is sprayed on the cakes seems to belong to another era.

Outside this workshop, Dung’s wife Nhuan is all smiles as she hands over the cakes to customers. The mooncakes are selling like hotcakes.

This activity has been repeated for almost 50 years, and while it is seasonal, it has kept this family in business for three generations, and in so doing, tells different stories about different eras.

They have been through a few decades of war, rations and a subsidized economy. They have experienced the Doi moi reform of 1986 and the market economy that increased their market, too. And now, they are struggling to find their own place in the globalization era, where several traditional values are being challenged.

Believe it or not

Believe it or not, there was a time when mooncakes were illegal.

It was a time when the Americans were dropping bombs on homes in the capital city.

Then, Xuan Dinh was an agricultural suburb of Hanoi, where people cultivated rice and other crops to support the war effort.

Everything was rationed then, including rice and meat. Each person got just 150 grams of meat for the whole month. Dung’s parents couldn’t afford to raise their five kids on the meager rations then, so they decided to make a living making and selling mooncakes.

His dad had learned to make the cakes when he was 13. He belonged to the first generation of bakers in Xuan Dinh Village.

Dung’s childhood memory of the Full Moon Festival during war time has not faded a bit, even 50 years later.

He can still feel the autumn breeze arrive as the harvest season ends, when fruits were ripe and fragrant, when he would bite into a crispy persimmon. The festival was a comparatively plain and simple affair then, but it was unforgettable. There were no proper lanterns back then, so kids in Xuan Dinh strung grapefruit seeds on an iron wire. A more luxurious version was using an iron milk can as the lantern, and only well off families in the village could afford it.

Dung was seven years old then. He would go to school in the morning and then get in line to buy rice and meat like every other kid during the subsidy era.

But in the night, things were different. It seemed that his family retired very early, but the couple and their five children would bake batches of mooncakes in the night and sell them to wholesalers.

For this activity done behind closed doors, light emanated from Soviet hurricane lamps and the red hot charcoal oven, casting the shadows of seven people on the wall. The father mixed the filling, the mother shaped the dough and the others did the packaging. Dung gently wrapped oil paper around the cakes. They did their job quietly, no sound escaping their mouths.

If there was something to say, body language and whispers were deployed.

When the packaging was done, the cakes are placed into bigger boxes, which were then put into two big iron barrels on a bicycle and taken to the market at dawn.

Dung usually sat at the back of the bicycle so it would like a farmer taking his kid to the city to buy something. Dung would use the time waiting for his father to deliver the cakes in the market to catch up on some sleep. He didn’t know where exactly the cakes were delivered, but after each trip to the city, the family had some more food for their dinner.

“But we still got exposed,” Dung recalled. “There was a year when they confiscated our ingredients eight times. Another baker family in the village also got their ingredients seized four times. We earned nothing that year.”

Then hiding and concealment was a way of life. Trading was considered an illegal act. If you sold something, you were a smuggler.

“I was just a kid then, so when I packed the cakes, I just wanted to eat them all, but my dad would kill me.”

Secret ingredients

The traditional fillings for a mooncake include ham, dried sausage, diced sugared lard, lotus seeds, pumpkin seeds, lime leaves and sesame. These were treasures from the field, nourished and harvested by the farmers themselves.

To make a high quality, delicious mooncake, the ingredients had to be of high quality too. In April, Dung’s mother would cycle all the way to Soc Son, 25 kilometers from the village, just to buy some pumpkins. She would only choose firm, medium ripe ones, ignoring the big round ones that were often sour and watery.

In May, she would get on her bicycle again and this time, cycle 11 kilometers to Dong Anh to choose the best sesame. These ingredients also had to be kept away from the sight of neighbors.

The hardest part, of course, was to buy lard and pork. Dung’s dad used to work with traders to buy food stamps in the black market. “The pork had to be fresh, marinated, roasted and sun bathed to develop that special flavor, not the tasteless salted shredded meat,” Dung said.

But besides these regular ingredients, there was one that made Dung’s family’s mooncakes stand out from the rest: a special aromatic liquor. The liquor was, and is, made by brewing cinnamon, anise, clove and other secret ingredients that Dung cannot reveal. Brewing started, and still starts on the 16th day of August, every year.

“The secret recipe was created by my father. I’m just someone who follows it.”

Not illegal any more

When the Doi moi reform policy was adopted in 1986, the market-oriented policy lifted many of the difficulties and hardships of the subsidy period.

Dung’s family no longer has to smuggle mooncakes to the market. They had their own shop with a really big sign hung outside that boldly said, “Sinh Hung.”

Manufacturing and trading were unchained, the economy started growing, businesses started blooming. The whole village switched to making mooncakes.

Nhuan has been a part of the family since the 90s – when Xuan Dinh was on top of the mooncake game. In her memory, the month before the Mid-Autumn Festival was always the busiest time. Her day consisted of three activities: “eating, babysitting and selling mooncakes.” She had to have dinner and sell cakes at the same time, that’s how busy it got.

The men in the house brewed the liquor and made the filling because only her husband and her father in-law knew the recipe.

A spark of pride flashes in Dung’s eyes when he talks about his family during that time. They were the first in the village to buy a Peugeot bike, a Honda Cub motorbike and a car.

Hit like a truck

Once the 90s passed, mooncakes with a soft-paste filling – an alternative version from China arrived in Vietnam, and it has been a part of the Full Moon Festival here since.

In the 2000s, the line in front of Dung’s house was no longer as long as it was in the 90s. Dung’s bakery had to slash its budget as also the number of employees. He switched to making confections for the Tet holidays.

But, as far as the mooncakes go, Dung said it is guaranteed that there’s something not right with these new versions, because they can last for the whole month.

“The traditional filling without using preservatives can only be edible for 7 to 10 days. I will walk on my head if they can prove that these mooncakes with paste fillings are still edible after a month, if no preservatives are used,” he asserted.

Eventually, Dung realized he had to follow the trend, because that’s what the customers wanted. A part of him worried that the family business would fall behind if he did not adjust to the customers’ preferences. So he started making new mooncakes with green and red bean fillings, but did not stop making the traditional ones, which he still thinks is more important.

Globalization hit mooncake making in Xuan Dinh Village like a hurricane. From more than a 100 shops, there are just 30 now.

Explaining this, Dung said many families didn’t have a next generation to maintain the business, or didn’t know how to promote themselves in the Internet era, or just simply couldn’t take the heat from food inspectors. The market was being flooded by confections made on an industrial scale with a great diversity in flavors.

Amidst this storm, Dung has tried to keep the family’s tradition and craftsmanship going into the third generation.

Dung has five children. Four of them already know how to shape and pack the cakes. But Dung is now the only one left with knowledge of the family recipe after his father passed away. He has to hand down the recipe to someone else, before this workshop ends up in the dust, like others in Xuan Dinh.

He has chosen Cuong, the second son, to pass on the secret.

Cuong, who’s learned to shape mooncakes since he was 10, is not too enamored of mooncake making, the white flour and smell of cakes sticking to him all day. But he understands that among his siblings, he is the most suited to carry the torch. He is continuing in the footsteps of his father, because he wants to keep the traditional family craft alive.

Dung is determined not to let the craft die, since he feels that his family owes a lot to it. They gave his family everything, from food to fill their empty stomachs during the subsidy days to fame and fortune later.

He believes traditional mooncakes are the best, because they are handmade and carry the heart and soul of the artist that makes them.

He believes traditional mooncakes can survive even in the globalized world, because people have started going back to them in recent years. The line at the bakery is getting longer, just like old times.

“My father said a rolling stone gathers no moss, and that a useful trade is a gold mine. I have to keep the art going,” Dung said.

He believes tradition is like one’s home: No matter where you go, eventually, you’ll return home.