With summer fast waning and the autumn fruits making their way to market, it’s time to turn to one of my favorite holidays. The Mid-Autumn Festival or, as many of us call it, the Harvest Moon Festival, celebrates the brightest and fullest moon of the year. It was once a time for families to relax and enjoy finally the fruits of their summer labor. Nowadays, in that peculiar way modernization and urbanization has of thinning out traditions, people might simply exchange moon cakes or go out to eat at their favorite Chinese restaurant. A few purists will try to hike up a hill for a midnight picnic with hot tea. Or, if you’re Andrea Nguyen, you spend days making your own moon cakes from scratch.
Store-bought moon cakes are just like store-bought fruitcakes — tasteless insults to the real thing. I can attest to the difference between one of Andrea’s moon cakes and one of those brightly decorated, impulse-buy boxes that line the checkout counters at Asian markets this time of the year. Follow closely the four-page recipe in her cookbook, and you, too, can give friends and families one of these memorable treats.
Or, like me, stop at Kee Wah Bakery and stock up on “piggy basket” buns filled with sweetened lotus seed. At a couple of bucks each, you can get one for every sweet-toothed pork lover in your full-moon circle. I can never resist their gorgeous tins to hold diminutive mango and pineapple teacakes, my favorite flavors there. This year, I snagged a long, flat persimmon tin. In past years, I fell hard for a collectors’ series of smaller tins decorated with smiling monks sipping tea and munching cookies.
Kee Wah Bakery is a much-loved Hong Kong chain that was founded in 1938 by Mr. Wong Yip Wing. He started out by selling candies and loaning out comic books to kids; his shop quickly became known as “The Chamber of Dreams.” Since then, it has grown into a famous chain that bakes up a wide range of high-quality treats. They are the place to go for hard-to-find favorites such as Portuguese egg tarts (think dan tat crossed with crème brulee); delicate, rolled tuiles; and excellent, homemade, Asian-style cookies (not too sweet) made with real butter. I also love their packaging for its elegant simplicity. The tins are optional; you receive them when you buy a set of cakes.
As their loyal fans immigrated to the US, Kee Wah opened bakeries in California. Their first foray east across the ocean popped up in Monterey Park, of course, then two other shops in San Gabriel and Rowland Heights expanded their Southern California options. More recently, Kee Wah’s bakeries in the Bay Area, two smack in the middle of Milipitas and one in Dublin, have brought their famous tea cakes, bridal cakes, moon cakes and Hong-Kong-style cookies, tarts and buns to Northern California.
Like other Hong Kong-style bakeries, it’s partly serve-yourself and partly a Western-style bakery where you point into the display case. Grab a tray and a set of tongs, and then help yourself to the buns and cookies. Their staff will assist you with their special pastries and cakes. In the tradition of Asian service, complicated questions receive curt answers, so be sure to keep your expectations low if you’re using this as an educational fieldtrip without a Mandarin or Cantonese speaker at your side.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take too much to figure out what you want to eat in a glass-walled bakery, and their clearly written, English-language signs should offer all the guidance you need to avoid allergy-inducing walnuts or vegetarian-unfriendly pork fluff. Their walnut shortbread cookies will please the tamest eater, while their phoenix cookie with melon seeds, date seeds, sweet rice flour, and preserved bean curd should be interesting to the more adventurous.
1718 N. Milpitas Blvd.
Milpitas, CA 95035
386 Barber Lane
Milpitas, CA 95035
4288 Dublin Blvd. # 107
Dublin, CA 94568