Baking my way to cultural acceptance

Below is an excerpt from a work in progress.


Cultural guilt is:

  • knowing names of ingredients only by sight and a taste description (“that crunchy cucumber thing”)
  • someone else naming a dish that you grew up eating but never knew the name of
  • recognizing when something is in a language but you can’t read it
  • spoken to as if you knew a language and haltingly, uttering an accented reply
  • knowing what you want at a butcher shop but not having the words to ask for it

It would be 15 years before I made mooncakes again. I’d moved to San Francisco, where I would visit the mall around February and find myself staring, awestruck, at how the mall — the mall! — had a plethora of lunar new year decorations up. An enormous dragon would be inside the entrance. Unironic banners would be strung up on the light posts outside. Furthermore, the stores were all-in on the holiday. Windows were draped in red and gold. Chinese characters were used correctly. I received mailers from large corporate companies who talked about the new year as if it was St. Patrick’s Day or Labor Day. Another holiday to consumer-ize. There was an Asian-American mayor.

Despite all this, or maybe because of it, I found myself wanting mooncakes. I didn’t want the kind that was peddled in the store. I wanted the kind I grew up with. The kind that I couldn’t really describe, which made searching for a recipe all the more difficult. Mooncakes have gotten more popular recently. Enough so that when searching on Pinterest, recipes from white foodie bloggers mentioning atrocious fillings like cream cheese, cluttered up my search results. Even then, they were the rich kind of mooncakes.

“Taiwanese moon cakes,” I typed. A few more scrolls later, I found it. Something that looked like what I was used to. And made by someone who wasn’t adding extra sugar or subbing in low fat. I read through the recipe, thanked her silently for the video, and concluded that I could do this. If 15-year-old me could make 30 mooncakes, 30-year old me could certainly make 14.

I gathered my ingredients and set out to find the rest. Red bean paste, I found easily. Lard, not so much. Whole Foods was sold out. A nearby Vietnamese grocery mart had no idea what I was talking about. Another one I went into didn’t have it but — did I want some fat instead? An anxious Google search later taught me that yes, I could indeed make lard myself from fat. I was determined to go with the recipe. Baking was a science and those flakes needed lard. I asked for a pound of pork fat, far more lard than I needed, according to the mooncake recipe.

As I started looking up recipes for lard, I understood the concept. It was easy, boiling the fat. Draining it out. What I didn’t know was how long the process would take and how little it would make. “Be careful of which fat you get,” I read. The best kind would be leaf lard, a white, expensive, bouge-y lard found in high-end butcher shops. “The smell is off-putting,” wrote another blogger. I sniffed the lard in progress and shook my head, confused. It smelled like fat. A little like pork. But mostly just heated fat.

It took me six hours to make the lard. And it was too hot and far too late to start on my mooncakes. As I finished making my mooncakes that year, I vowed — next time, I would buy my lard.