Autumn is the season for osmanthus blossoms, chestnuts and the Mid-Autumn Festival. Corresponding seasonal treats include osmanthus cakes, candied chestnuts and mooncakes stuffed with pork and pickled vegetables.
Shanghai Daily takes a look at these Chinese favorites and tells you where to find authentic versions in Hangzhou.
Hangzhou is like a huge fragrance bottle in the autumn as the pleasant aroma of osmanthus is common around town. From western-most Yangmeiling Village to downtown hidden lanes, these aromatic flowers are seemingly everywhere.
Hangzhou and osmanthus go back a long way. During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) poet Bai Juyi wrote of a beautiful scene of golden flowers and his hopes of returning to Hangzhou to gaze upon blooming osmanthus once again.
Osmanthus cake (桂花糕)
Over time, a series of osmanthus treats were created by locals and osmanthus cake is definitely the most popular. It’s simple to prepare as it’s made with glutinous rice, sugar and dried osmanthus flowers.
Since the flowers only bloom for a short period in the autumn, osmanthus cakes are only available for a couple of weeks each year at roadside food stalls or in upscale restaurants.
The cakes have also long been associated with good luck due to an ancient legend. The story goes that a lush osmanthus tree on the moon could never be felled, even by immortals. A scholar named Yang Sheng’an flew to the moon and successfully picked a branch, which brought him good luck and he finished first on the imperial exam.
A vendor who passed Yang’s house discovered his secret. He quickly created the osmanthus cake and used the scholar’s story to market the snack. Soon the cakes became popular across the country. Thereafter, people would eat osmanthus cake for good luck before taking an exam.
Where to eat:
• Lao Hang Bang Pastry Store (老杭邦)
Address: 196 Hefang St (河坊街196号)
Chestnuts fried with sugar (糖炒栗子)
In traditional Chinese medicine, chestnuts are considered the “king of dried fruit” since they contain many nutrients. They are also called “kidney nuts” because they nourish kidneys and strengthen the body.
Chestnut fried with sugar is one of the most popular seasonal snacks among locals. During the cooking process, people have to continuously stir-fry chestnuts with sugar and small round black stones, which are used to transmit heat to the chestnuts.
Chestnut vendors usually stir-fry on site, using a shovel to mix the chestnuts and stones in a huge wok.
After mixing, the chestnuts are coated with a layer of sugar.
Chestnuts are high in calories and starch, thus physicians recommend eating 10 or less per day. Where to eat:
• Shengwen Candied Chestnut (盛文甘栗)
Address: 178 Hedong Rd (河东路178号)
Tel: (0571) 8533-0697
Mooncake stuffed with pork and pickled vegetable (杂菜肉丝月饼)
While people around China eat sweet mooncakes around the Mid-Autumn Festival, Hangzhou natives line up for an oven-fresh, flaky and salty variety of the traditional treat that is made of minced pork and pickled mustard stem, or zhacai.
The best time to eat it is fresh from the oven with the mellow scent of fresh meat and pastry wafting through the air. The pork goes well with the crunchy and spicy zhacai. Since both ingredients are not watery, the pastry stays flaky for hours.
According to historical documents, this mooncake recipe originated in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. At one point demand for the sweet Cantonese mooncakes was so strong that this pork and pickled vegetable version was hard to find.
But its present-day revival in Hangzhou can be attributed to several local pastry companies. September Life, Zhiweiguan and Caizhizhai, began to revive the salty mooncakes a few years ago. This variety quickly found favor with those tired of overly sweet mooncakes.
This savory mooncake recipe is considered a grassroots snack compared with the sweet variety, since the latter are always sealed in exquisite plastic boxes and often sell for hundreds of yuan. Pork and pickled vegetable mooncakes are rolled in paper and cost about 3 yuan (49 US cents) each.
Mooncake makers have been selling the seasonal treats since the beginning of the month.
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