Like many of the Hainanese-styled food that you will find in Singapore, like Hainanese pork chops, chicken curry and beef stew, the Hainanese moon cake that some of the older Hainanese generation are familiar with cannot be found in Hainan Island.
My dad and his family used to run the only confectionery in Singapore that sells Hainanese moon cake in Purvis Street. Hainanese of his generation and maybe even mine would have grown up eating this even Moon Cake Festival or giving them as gifts to relatives.
Side note: For the younger generation of Hainanese: Middle Road, Purvis Street and Seah Street used to called Hainan Street 1, 2 and 3. Sometimes, you may still here the older generations calling them by those names and some taxi driver too still recognize them by those names. Those streets are, of course, where a lot of Hainanese used to stay and grew up in. The Hainanese character is almost gone now, except with a few chicken rice and Hainanese food stalls.
From what my dad told me, the Hainanese moon cake is actually not a real moon cake (duh!!) and also not known in Hainan Island. It was actually adapted from a similar biscuit found probably in Shanghai or its parts called 酥饼 or flaky biscuit. He is not sure when our family started selling it, but he thought that it was probably started from his grandparents generation. You see, as the Hainanese were relatively poor at that time, they could not afford to buy the typical sugar loaded lotus and salted egg moon cakes and being a Hainanese confectionery family, we had to sell something that Hainanese could buy and voila!
Whatever happened, this sure became synonymous with Singaporean Hainanese during moon cake festival since.
Alas, its sad that due to family conflicts, back biting, stabbing and all sorts of melodrama with the family (as with any big families sometimes), the family tradition could not continue and the confectionery has to close.
What is unique (and what I liked) about the Hainanese moon cake is that it is blend of umami from fried onions and pork lard, slightly sweet and salty, a little spicy with pepper and an uplifting tanginess. This just a beautiful blend of flavors when the balance of ingredients are there. That is why, it was very hard to duplicate this if you don’t have the exact recipe and proportions, as I have seen people attempting to do it before.
The main ingredients are sesame seeds with some melon seeds, this is vastly different from the traditional moon cake made with loads of sugar and lotus paste. In a sense, I could say that its healthier, but not necessarily less fattening!
Into the fillings goes grounded white pepper to give it its spiciness; rose flavored fine sugar, to give it the sweetness and additional fragrance; a bit of salt; and finally, what I feel is most important, dried tangerine skin peel. My dad says that traditionally, they got what is called 山桔 from some parts of China. These are wild tangerines that are dried up and very hard. He told me that it is a very tedious process to grind up the tangerine skin as it is very hard, but it gives a really wonderful tanginess and fragrance. Its hard to find that now and the substitute ones (and cheaper ones from Malaysia or even China) are not as fragrant or tangy anymore.
As for the skin, its nothing more than flour, water, a bit of salt and pork lard. But skills come to play on how to fold it to up the flakiness of the skin. Also the skin must be thin enough. I have tried some duplicate one where the skin is just too thick and everything is tasteless. Mind you, because the skin has pork lard, it can be pretty oily on the surface.
I will hope to dig out the exact recipe from my dad, but I think it more depends on experience and skills to get it right than just the recipe. Also I am not afraid of people getting the recipe, the more people know it, the more this moon cake will stay, even if the younger generation may not appreciate it anymore.
There you go… for those who have no idea what a Hainanese moon cake is and those who have eaten Hainanese moon cake and not sure what its all about.
Update: My cousin, Suan is keeping the tradition alive and making and selling the mooncake. If you are interested, please contact him firstname.lastname@example.org
Also they have a small video feature his mom and the mooncake