Eating mooncakes over the Mid-Autumn festival is a long standing tradition in Singapore. The most popular varieties here are the Cantonese versions, round rotund pastries with a sweet, usually lotus paste, filling accented with melon seeds and salted egg yolks. Over the years the varieties of mooncake have increased exponentially as new flavours proved to be ever popular with the local crowd. From the very first 'snow-skin' mooncakes bearing the pungency of artificial banana and pandan essences to the exquisite haute versions now harbouring parma ham, foie gras and truffle oil, mooncakes have become a huge industry raking in millions for the tireless producers who keep churning out newer, more outlandish flavours to entice new customers in a stagnant pool.
Shang Palace Singapore's bird's nest with custard mooncakes. Photo by Chief
In the decades past, mooncakes were the staples of old-time bakeries that had spent years honing the same recipes. A few prominent producers from the 80s, from Tai Thong to Bengawan Solo, had claimed that they were the ones who invented the 'snow skin' mooncakes, a glutinous rice confection with hearts of every flavour imaginable, from conventional red bean paste to alcohol laced cognac truffles and the ever popular durian paste. The flavours of the gooey skins are also multitudinous - lemon, coconut, yuzu, sake, chocolate, mocha, mandarin, charcoal, cherry and pandan are just some of the flavours we've sampled over the years.
Regardless of origins, the Singaporean mooncake market is currently dominated by the hotels that tempt with luxury branding and premium packaging. Bolstered by a raging corporate climate for gifting during this festive period, sales have been lucrative, even though in recent years many producers have let on that the market is now more competitive than ever, with sales figures going south each passing year. From the vast assortment of flavours flooding the market year after year, one can have an idea just how competitive the mooncake market actually is.
An assortment of mooncakes with their premium packaging from 2019's selection. Photo by Chief
We visit 4 of Singapore's most popular Chinese restaurants to review their spirited cuisine, which would be most appreciated for family reunions over the Mid-Autumn festival, and the inventive mooncake flavours the chefs have created for 2019. These are four of the top chefs of their field, renowned for their progressive treatment of Cantonese cuisine, who are clearly bolder with the mooncake flavours they produced this year.
1. Shang Palace, Shangri-La Singapore
Hong Kong native Mok Kit Keung is undoubtedly one of the island's top Cantonese chef since he arrived over a year ago to helm Shangri-La Singapore's signature Shang Palace restaurant. Awarded 2 Michelin stars at Shang Palace Kowloon, Mok has brought with him a high-level expertise in traditional methods coupled with a keen eye for modern preferences and aesthetics. He has a mastery over the Cantonese treasures, from expertly textured braised abalones to perfectly simmered fish maws and sea cucumbers for luxurious soups and hearty dishes. Mok delivers the essence of fine Cantonese cuisine with uncommon flair and gumption.
Deep-fried Whole Boneless Chicken filled with Fried Glutinous Rice by Chef Mok. Photo by Chief
From last year, Mok has also created a bird's nest with custard mooncake for Shang Palace which is a decadent treat of stewed bird's nest encased by custard filling and a buttery pastry. Custard mooncakes may be more of an imported taste from Hong Kong where it is supposedly very popular but lovers of rich creamy confections could easily fall for this luxury interpretation. Toasting the vacuum-packed mooncakes before eating would help with the texture of the pastry and elevate its fragrance.
Premium bird's nest with custard mooncakes by Shang Palace Singapore
2. Hai Tian Lo, Pan Pacific Singapore
Cantonese chef Ben Zeng brings with him over 25 years of experience honed from famed restaurants like Hakkasan Miami and Cassia at Capella Singapore to the award winning Hai Tian Lo at Pan Pacific where he has rejuvenated the menu with thoughtfully refined classics that are traditional in taste but modern in conception. His crispy sea cucumber stuffed with minced pork served with a preserved vegetable sauce is a stand-out dish amidst some of the best dim sums served within the Marina Bay precincts. Zeng is a rising chef with modern sensibilities who seems committed to update popular Chinese classics for the palates of the current age.
Deep-fried sea cucumber stuffed with minced pork, an inspired dish catering to younger palates by Chef Zeng. Photo by Chief
Hai Tian Lo's mooncakes are renowned for their pretty packaging and distinctive flavours. This year the hotel has worked with budding artists from Pathlight School, an autism focused school, to produce the artwork for the metal boxes containing the mooncakes as well as a tote bag that will raise funds for the school. Such a charitable directive deserves support from the public, especially when the mooncake flavours created by Zeng and his team, like Gianduja and Yuzu, Coconut and Pineapple and Earl Grey and Cherry, are robust and well-crafted. Our favourite is still the Mao Shan Wang mooncake with creamy, delicate tasting durian filling encased by a soft, fragrant bright green snow skin.
Premium mooncake packaging by Hai Tien Lo this year is designed by Pathlight School's aspiring artists
3. Wan Hao, Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel
Chef Brian Wong is one of Singapore's youngest and most talented chef who is boldly inventive yet extremely inspired by the traditional tastes and methods of Cantonese cuisine. In a short time, he has revived the reputation of Wan Hao as one of the country's top fine dining Chinese restaurants with his spirited renditions of classic soups, dim sums and perennial favourites like fried rice and claypot stews that are not only visually appealing, but also conceptually forward. Wong is a risk taker in his choice of ingredients and flavours, with the uncanny ability to always plate something unconventional, yet familiar.
Tantalising dim sum like these yam puffs with baby abalone are some of Chef Wong's specialties. Photo by Chief
For years now Wong has created outstandingly inventive mooncake flavours for Wan Hao that changes every year. In 2017 it was Parma ham with lotus seed paste. Last year it was cempedak paste with pumpkin seeds and this year we are seeing even bolder flavours like golden red dates mooncakes with pistachio, jambon de Bayonne, sesame and salted egg yolks. The description may be long, but the ingredients complement each other in a sweet-savoury balance Wong seems most adept at creating. His snow skin flavours are also supremely tempting - think raspberry yogurt, mocha rose liqueur praline and coconut snow skin champagne praline.
'Black gold' mooncakes with red dates, pistachios and jambon de Bayonne
4. Jiang Nan Chun, 4 Seasons Singapore
Chef Tim Lam, who hails from Macau, brought to one of Singapore's oldest fine dining Chinese restaurant a one Michelin star rating after he joined the restaurant in 2017. His approach on Cantonese cuisine is refreshingly fuss-free, and presents classical staples with minimal revisions to traditional recipes. Jiang Nan Chun is still a stable station for the city's top version of the Peking Duck and Dong Po pork, served amidst elegant settings. Following an illustrious line of master chefs like Albert Tse (China Blue, Conrad Tokyo) and Jeremy Leung (founder/chef of now-closed Whampoa Club Shanghai) who'd held court in this illustrious restaurant, Lam's game-plan in refined simplicity seems to be working well.
Dong Po Pork, speckled with gold by Chef Lam of Jiang Nan Chun. Photo by Chief
For such a classically attuned chef, Lam's traditional salted egg yolk lotus paste mooncake is one of the best in Singapore, with the difficult composition of thin crust, not-too-sweet lotus seed paste and rich creamy yolks all masterfully rendered. Lam has also invented some innovative flavours, with the blue-skinned bird's nest with custard snow skin mooncake one of the most well-received. The smoked duck with assorted nuts mooncake renders a slight twist by replacing the traditionally used Chinese ham with smoked duck, acing the taste index with subtle aroma and a good bite.
Some of the best traditional baked mooncakes in Singapore are from Jiang Nan Chun