Moon Cakes a Big Business in Taiwan
By WILLIAM FOREMAN, Associated Press Writer
TAIPEI, Taiwan - They look like hockey pucks baked in a golden brown crust. They're loaded with sweet red bean paste, pineapple, salty duck eggs or other classic Chinese fillings. And they're everywhere.
It's moon cake time in Taiwan and other Chinese societies, a season when people give the pastries to family, friends and customers to mark the mid-autumn festival — a major holiday in the ethic Chinese world that's a cross between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day (news - web sites).
But although millions of moon cakes will be sold before the Sept. 28 holiday, it can be hard to find people who like eating them. Boxes of them pile up in offices, and surplus cakes often get moldy and are tossed away at homes.
Giving moon cakes has become one of those odd, obligatory traditions fueling a huge industry that produces a product few people would buy for themselves.
The pastries have become like American fruitcakes — a stodgy Christmas dessert that often evokes more dread than joy.
The cakes are victims of changing tastes among an increasingly affluent, hip urban population that has developed a taste for Belgian chocolate, New York-style cheesecake and Japanese rice pastries.
Alan Lee, a middle-aged Taipei insurance executive, said he doesn't eat moon cakes because he's worried about calories — or "ka lu li" in Mandarin.
"My daughter and son, they don't even want to look at them," added Lee, who said he loved eating the cakes as a child. "They just don't have a taste for them. They have McDonald's and many other kinds of desserts."
The basement food court at the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department store in downtown Taipei is crowded with booths selling moon cakes. Saleswomen in bright aprons accost shoppers and urge them to take a free nibble or a full-color brochure of their offerings.
The traditional moon cake is round, shined up with an egg wash and baked dark brown. They're shaped by a mold that leaves an elaborate impression, which usually includes the moon cake brand-name in Chinese characters. Often the desserts contain a bright yellow duck egg yolk. This type is especially popular among the Cantonese in Hong Kong and mainland China's Guangdong province.
Taiwanese prefer moon cakes that have a flaky white crust and are shaped like a lopsided squash ball. Others are square and as big as a matchbook or credit card. Common fillings include sweet red and green bean paste, as popular here as chocolate is in the West.
Saleswoman Hu Su-lan scrunches up her nose as she looks at moon cake boxes stacked high at a booth across from her tea shop in the department store's basement. The 38-year-old woman said she grew bored with moon cakes long ago and rarely eats them.
"Moon cakes used to be special. You'd see them only during the mid-autumn festival and Chinese New Year," she said. "Now they're everywhere. We Taiwanese like to eat exotic new things. Moon cakes are just ordinary."
The industry is trying hard to make the cakes trendy and novel. Haagen-Dazs is trying to steal market share with a chocolate-coated ice cream version available in strawberry, vanilla and coffee.
Starbucks coffee shops are also peddling a special coffee-friendly version with cream cheese and chocolate fillings wrapped in a cookie dough-like crust.
It's hard to estimate how much money is spent on moon cakes. Bakery trade associations say they don't collect the numbers, and many of the biggest moon cake makers are extremely secretive about their sales figures.
But Wu Lu-yun — a spokeswoman for Hsin Tung Yang, one of Taiwan's biggest moon cake makers — said this year the company plans to sell 200,000 boxes — with each containing between six and 12 cakes.
"Last year, we sold between 170,000 and 180,000 boxes" and made about $2.35 million, she said. The goal this year is to bring in just under $3 million.
Wu said that the company is trying to adjust to the latest diet trends. "We're making our cakes smaller so that they can be eaten in one or two bites," she said.
Brilliant marketing helps explain why the cakes continue to sell so well. People can easily order them in bulk by phone, the Web or by stopping by the numerous stores that sell them. Even 7-11 and other convenience stores, which are on almost every block in Taiwanese cities, offer convenient ordering.
Starbucks has started taking advanced orders for moon cakes, something the company has never done before in other parts of the world, Howard Schultz, the company's chairman and chief global strategist, told The Associated Press during a 2002 visit to the island.
Ordering moon cakes is an easy solution for a busy executive who feels obligated to send gifts to hundreds of customers. They're also an economical present, priced at about $14 a box.
But Chao Mei-kuie thinks the cakes make an awful gift. The department store saleswoman is pushing moon cake alternatives, like baskets of dried mushrooms and scallops, decorated boxes of Korean ginseng and decanters of Hennessy XO cognac.
"I can't stand moon cakes," she said. "You can never finish them all and you just end up throwing them away. It's best to give another gift that you can keep for six months or longer."
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