Over the moon

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One mother always makes the Mid-Autumn festival specialties herself - and revels in the experience

"What kind of lantern will your mother buy for you?"

"An electric one, I guess. The candle-lit one could be dangerous. The paper could catch fire. What about you?"

"I would also like an electric one, but I don't know."

I overheard this conversation between two little girls sitting on the pavement in front of my house. I knew them, they were my neighbors' children. I waited there to see where the conversation would go next, but the girls got up and went away.

That conversation made me realize, more than the thousands of colorful lanterns and mooncakes being displayed in shops, that this year's Mid-Autumn festival was drawing very near.

I was hoping to hear if either five-year-old Nguyen Minh Thu or seven-year-old Tran Thu Trang would talk next about the mooncakes, an indispensable part of the festival, which is also known as the Children's Tet (Tet trung thu).

My question went unasked because the girls left, but I decided I was going to pursue the question from another angle. I had heard of a woman residing in Ho Chi Minh City's District 9, who was bucking a modern tradition by actually making the banh trung thu (mooncake) herself, instead of buying it off the shelf like millions of other people.

Tran Thi Hoang Trinh, 51, a native of the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho, loves making banh trung thu for her relatives and friends. In fact, she makes a living from it. She makes different kinds of cakes including traditional Vietnamese ones like banh da lon (pigskin's cake) and banh it (glutinous rice cake filled with green bean paste) as well as western ones like cream cakes and cookies.

In August, Trinh's small, neat kitchen is pervaded by the fragrance of uncooked and freshly baked mooncakes.

Mooncake maker Tran Thi Hoang Trinh from Ho Chi Minh City's District 9 is making tasty, clean traditional cakes for her relatives and friends this year's Mid-Autumn festival

I reached her house just as Trinh was set to make a batch of ten mooncakes with taro and salted duck eggs as fillings.

Kneaded wheat flour was divided and rolled into balls to be flattened later to cover the fillings and then be rolled into balls again.

The mixed yellow balls, weighing exactly 120 grams on a scale, would then be pressed into a square pattern, decorated with a flower pattern on top.

Then the mixture is removed from the mould, given a coat of egg yolk and punctured with a toothpick to ensure the crust and filling remain in tact during the backing process. The cake is then placed in the oven.

After twenty minutes, Trinh takes the cakes out the oven and does something I never expected her to.

She dips the cakes in water, which she explains is a necessary process to enhance the fragrance and soften the crusts so that it will not get burnt in the second baking, which will last thirty minutes.

All the ready, freshly baked cakes have already been reserved by her neighbors, friends, and overseas Vietnamese, who love eating Trinh's handmade cakes because they are clean, tasty and healthy, and of course cheaper than those mass-produced by Vietnam's most well-known bakers.

According to Trinh, who learnt her craft from her late mother and grandmother, the ingredients for banh trung thu, especially caramel, should be prepared at least two months before the festival.

"The sooner the caramel is made and stored, the more delicious the cake will be," Trinh said, explaining the reason behind increased prices of sugar, wheat flour and beans, the main ingredients of banh trung thu, over the three summer months leading up to the festival.

Trinh, who has recently gotten orders to make mooncakes as presents for local school students, said that profit from mooncake making is five times the cost.

"The profits from mooncake making in the few months before the festival is enough for people like me to live on for the rest of the year," revealed Trinh, who counts another trung thu cake artisan named Kim Ha in the city as her mentor.

Trinh said baking mooncake is not difficult, but before Ha taught her to make the cake, she and her sisters always failed although they were adept at making several kinds of deserts and cakes.

"Every job has its own key and secrets, and so does the mooncake," said Trinh.

Ha, the senior artisan, has given the secret to Trinh because she feels that the latter is a deserving inheritor of her vast knowledge and experience.

"There is a misunderstanding that making banh trung thu thap cam (moon cake with varied ingredients as fillings, including caramel, melon seed, egg yolk, sesame, dried preserved squash, Chinese sausage) is more difficult than the mooncake made with just caramel, duck egg yolk, mixed with certain kinds of beans, including taro, green beans and lotus seeds.

"In fact, the latter is the more difficult but cheaper," Trinh said.

She said the ingredients for banh trung thu thap cam's fillings are already cooked and available in local markets, therefore all she has to do is blend all the ingredients together.

On the other hand, it was difficult to grind and fry both green beans and taro into a thick, silky mixture in a big pan for the moon cake.

"My aching hands are the result of days and nights of making the cakes, but I have to endure it because not only caramel, but the fillings also decide if the cake is delicious or not," she said.

Both the crust and the fillings should neither be too dry nor flabby, she said, but a mooncake master knows how to strike a balance.

Trinh said her two children neither want her to continue with the job nor inherit the art themselves since it is so difficult and both of them are now able to provide and take care of their mother. However, the 51-year-old mother thinks differently.

"Handmade mooncake is always delicious and healthy. My cake uses less oil and has no additives. And besides, making it is a tradition and something that gives me joy," Trinh said.

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