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Moon cakes in LA: Where to find them, how they're made

Moon cakes—a traditional treat associated with the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival—are selling like hotcakes in the San Gabriel Valley. Bakeries say as the Asian American population continues to grow in Southern California, so does the demand for the flaky round pastries.

“The last 20 years we had a lot of immigrants move to the United States and that’s why sales have been increasing all the time,” said Gary Tsai, general manager of IHA Beverage.

Tsai's business, based in City of Commerce, sells Malaysian moon cakes to seven Los Angeles area Costco stores. This year, Tsai’s business sold 50,000 boxes of moon cakes at Costco, up 56 percent from last year. Earlier this week, shoppers bought out the entire supply of moon cake boxes at Costco in Alhambra, and Tsai’s firm rushed to deliver more.

Moon cakes are a key part of celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival holiday. Friends and family gather together and snack on moon cakes, while admiring the full moon. Like any holiday, there’s a lot of folklore behind the festival. Some say it’s when the moon is brightest because of Chang'e, a beautiful woman who drank an elixir that caused her to fly to the moon and live forever. Another story says the Chinese put secret messages in moon cakes to tell people when to revolt against the Mongols and overthrow the Yuan Dynasty. There was never any evidence of the revolution plans because the Chinese ate the moon cakes.

At Phoenix Bakery in LA’s Chinatown, boiled yolks of duck eggs are placed inside balls of red bean paste. The duck eggs give the moon cakes a slightly salty flavor.

Bakers at Phoenix Bakery in LA’s Chinatown wrap a thin layer of dough over the balls of lotus paste. Then, they’re fitted inside a wooden mold and pounded out. The mold gives the moon cakes its special design. The moon cakes are later sprayed with egg wash, baked, cooled and packaged.

Vivian-Lee Nyitray, chair of the religious studies department at UC Riverside, said the business of making moon cakes is staggering. It's a number that's hard to quantify, but with many ethnic Chinese in China and overseas celebrating the festival, one can assume the sales of moon cakes are plentiful, she said.

"It's an extrodinary number of moon cakes that are made, purchased and consumed," Nyitray said.

At Phoenix Bakery in LA’s Chinatown, Youlen Chan and a team of bakers were hard at work last Sunday, turning out 200 moon cakes in preparation for last minute shoppers. This year, the bakery will sell several thousand moon cakes, Chan said.

Making moon cakes from scratch isn’t easy. First, Chan's team puts boiled duck egg yolks inside balls of lotus paste. Then, a thin layer of dough is placed around the balls. The balls are later slapped into a wooden mold and pounded out to create a beautiful design. Afterward, the moon cakes are sprayed with egg wash, baked, cooled and packaged.

“It’s a really labor intensive product, but it’s a tradition that we’ve done for close to 75 years,” Chan said, adding his dad’s moon cake recipe hasn’t changed.

When Phoenix Bakery started in 1938, it was one of the few places that Asian Americans could get moon cakes, Chan said. But now the competition has intensified, as more Asian bakeries are sprouting up in the San Gabriel Valley and as supermarkets stock their shelves with moon cakes made overseas. Chan says Phoenix Bakery’s slice of the moon cake market has become smaller.

“There are so many people making it, that the market is so tiny today,” Chan said. “It’s kind of like over-saturated.”

Bakeries across the San Gabriel Valley were bustling with customers eager to pick up their moon cakes, which can come in a variety of flavors—from lotus bean, pineapple, even ice cream.

Olympic Bakery’s Kenny Huang estimates the Temple City business will make about 1,000 moon cakes this year.

Even Costco is getting into the moon cake business. Samuel Huang, 27, spent about $50 at the Alhambra Costco on moon cakes for his dentist, his girlfriend's family and himself.

"It's the tradition and it's the time when you give family and friends some gifts," Huang said. "It's a way to show some appreciation."

Want to try a homemade moon cake? Here's a list of bakeries that make their own moon cakes from scratch: A&J Bakery 1300 East Main St., #102, Alhambra, Calif. Look for Chinese writing that reads “Ke Le Mei" in Chinese characters Phoenix Bakery 969 N. Broadway, Los Angeles, Calif. Olympic Bakery 5623 Rosemead Blvd., Temple City, Calif.