A friend phoned me early in the morning, asking if he could visit me that afternoon. I happened to be really busy then, so I asked if he could come by a few days later if it was not urgent.
He said he had just received a box of mung bean pastry from Taiwan, the kind without preservatives that would only stay fresh for a few days and would be best consumed within the next two or three days, so he was in a hurry to pass them to me.
My friend knew how fond I was of these unique hometown treats, and would often bring me a box of snacks whenever he made a trip to Taiwan. However, due to the pandemic over the past couple of years, he dared not travel and could not bring me such cheering treats. On this occasion, he got a family member to ship some over while he personally delivered them to me, which really warmed my heart.
I once tasted a cultural dish touted as a “Florence-style mung bean pastry”, which was made with olive oil in place of lard and Italian mixed herbs in place of shallots, with Italian sausage mixed in...
From 'Florence' to Fuzhou
The mung bean pastry is a snack usually eaten around the Mid-Autumn Festival. It is actually a traditional mooncake for the Fujianese, and the traditional method of making them is still passed down in Taiwan. While they look like Suzhou-style flaky-skin “suede” mooncakes, the filling inside is totally different, a unique mixture of sweet and savoury.
The word “椪” (peng) in “绿豆椪” is a curious word; one would not be able to find it in regular dictionaries, while in the Hanyu Da Cidian (汉语大词典) it is listed as referring to the ponkan, a type of mandarin orange I often ate as a child in Taiwan. I reckon it is because the mung bean pastry is dome-shaped, unlike the traditional mooncake, and looks more like a ponkan, which is why that particular word is used.
The filling for traditional mung bean pastry is made by wrapping minced pork fried with shallots in mung bean paste, but in recent years there have been all sorts of novel variations in mung bean pastry. Apparently, it is even billed as a cultural product and is very popular among the young.
I once tasted a cultural dish touted as a “Florence-style mung bean pastry”, which was made with olive oil in place of lard and Italian mixed herbs in place of shallots, with Italian sausage mixed in. It tasted bizarre, neither fish nor fowl, neither East nor West — it tasted awful, but I dared not comment for fear of embarrassing the young chef.
There used to be mung bean pastry in Fuzhou, though it doesn't seem to be promoted much there these days. But there are online recipes for mung bean pastry filling: “Soak one bag of shelled mung beans in water for six hours. Steam soft enough to press into a paste by hand. Put it all into a mixer and mix into a paste. Fry three chopped shallots in 60g (⅓ cup) of oil on low heat until golden brown, and set aside for use. Put the mung bean paste into the same wok used to fry the shallots. Add a half spoonful of salt, 50g (¼ cup) sugar, ⅛ spoonful of white pepper, and then mix in the fried shallot. Once cool, use an ice cream scooper to make 16 portions.”
This seems to be a simplified vegetarian recipe, since there is no minced pork used, or perhaps this is a recipe for the modern health-conscious individual.
From north to south, throughout Taiwan, some old pastry shops make a good traditional mung bean pastry with mincemeat; one tastes the fragrance of the mung bean paste, followed by the thick, savoury goodness of mincemeat exploding in your mouth like fireworks. It can be considered a food of the masses that also makes a presentable gift.
Using the names of Li Bai and Su Dongpo on mung bean pastry evokes a sense of poetry as one savours them...
A taste of poetry?
In recent years, old stores have been revamped and their products have become popular local gifts from Taiwan. With an unlimited market, capitalism leads to novel ideas.
One old store in Tainan is sticking to tradition; it does not dabble in East-West fusion, but changes up traditional methods of making mung bean pastry. There is a non-vegetarian option, a lacto-vegetarian option and one with salted egg yolk, so that buyers feel that it is interesting and varied, which does show good business sense.
Interestingly, the store uses intangible cultural heritage to its advantage by including the names of classical poets in their products, with the lacto-vegetarian version named after Li Bai (“for its milky, snow-white filling”) and the non-vegetarian version (using braised meat handmade with a secret recipe) to commemorate Su Shi or Su Dongpo (as in Dongpo meat 东坡肉). The third variant, not named after anyone, is described as “made using salted yolks from eggs laid by locally reared ducks in Pingtung, Taiwan, with a colour like the full moon”.
Turning traditional food into a cultural product is the trend these days. It is said to elevate a product’s cultural status, even to the level of an aesthetic product. Using the names of Li Bai and Su Dongpo on mung bean pastry evokes a sense of poetry as one savours them. It is an innovative cultural approach that local governments are adopting as a policy to spur economic development and revitalise culture.
This old pastry store in Tainan has the right idea, but not naming the salted egg flavour mung bean pastry after a historical figure is perhaps a reflection of their limited knowledge vis-a-vis classical literature, which is a pity. In fact, late Tang poet Lu Guimeng, also known as Mr Puli (甫里先生), would have been the perfect fit, as he loved rearing ducks. But then, not many young people know of Lu Guimeng these days.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is almost upon us — let’s have some mung bean pastry.
Related: Cultural historian: Why do civilisations pass down their cultures? | Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai: The power of the individual during a pandemic | The Chaozhou people can boast of Tang dynasty essayist Han Yu