Moon Cakes Prompt American Culture Clash

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Asian-Americans in California are in conflict with state health officials over moon cakes. They're a cultural tradition, but the health department says the way they're made and stored makes them a breeding ground for dangerous bacteria.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Many people celebrate the Chinese New Year with moon cakes, those fist-sized golden brown pasties filled with sweet bean paste, egg yolks and nuts. But in California, the pastry's popularity has attracted what some say is unnecessary attention from health officials and the state legislature. Lonny Shavelson has the story.

LONNY SHAVELSON: On Grant Avenue in San Francisco's Chinatown, the line for moon cakes outside the Golden Gate Bakery can be 30 minutes long. Inside, crowds gather around racks filled with dozens of varieties of chewy moon cakes. Virginia Woo(ph) takes customers' orders.

Ms. VIRGINIA WOO (Golden Gate Bakery): We have mixed nuts, we have coconut and nuts, and this one is a white lotus. We have a big variety.

Ms. LISA CHAN(ph) (Customer): Oh, they are very good. Chinese people normally like things fresh.

SHAVELSON: Lisa Chan's family has been coming here for years. They buy moon cakes by the box full.

When you buy moon cakes, do you take them home and put them in the refrigerator, or do you just leave them out?

Ms. CHAN: We leave them out. We usually eat them within a week or two.

SHAVELSON: That's what worries Kevin Reilly at the California Department of Health.

Mr. KEVIN REILLY (California Department of Health): They do have the potential of growing bacteria and causing problems - illness, food-borne illness.

SHAVELSON: In Orange County, home to 135,000 Vietnamese-Americans, the health department is insisting that stores refrigerate their moon cakes if kept out for more than just four hours. Other counties are considering similar rules, and that's raised the ire of Van Tran, the only Vietnamese-American member of the California legislature.

Mr. VAN TRAN (California Assemblyman): Because these types of foods, again, have been consumed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years without any significant health issues.

SHAVELSON: Assemblyman Tran says there are many reasons to keep moon cakes out of the refrigerator.

Mr. TRAN: If you put the moon cakes into the fridge, anything that's lower than 40 degrees, it would not taste the same, because it would be basically a hockey puck. The texture of the cake would be a solid object, and it would be a health hazard if you bite it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAVELSON: Tran took the moon cake dilemma to the legislature and passed the bill that directs the California Department of Health to actually study moon cakes before they regulate them, but even that seems a slap in the face to some. Professor Yong Chen, who researches food and culture at U.C. Irvine, says the very act of investigating the safety of moon cakes is demeaning to Asians, who've eaten them for centuries.

Mr. YONG CHEN (University of California, Irvine): To tell Asian-Americans to put their moon cakes in the refrigerator, you know, that's just being culturally insensitive, right? It's also ignorant of the long history behind it. It has always been safe for so many centuries. Why all of a sudden we need to do this?

SHAVELSON: Chen says scientists should be learning about food safety from moon cakes, not imposing new rules on them.

Mr. CHEN: Food safety is based on Western science, and you know, that emerged since the late 19th century, and you know, that's very limited, culturally, and it doesn't take into consideration culinary traditions other than Anglo-American.

SHAVELSON: So for this lunar new year, many Asian bakeries in California will still have displays like this one. More than 100 moon cakes crowd the shelves, each an inch and a half thick. Their sunrise-yellow crusts are embossed with Chinese letters that name the bakery and identify one of dozens of possible fillings. Woo selects a black-bean moon cake and slices it through to show a dense, brown core.

Ms. WOO: It looks like chocolate, but it tastes like mince.

SHAVELSON: Is that an egg yolk in the center?

Ms. WOO: This is the yolk, yeah. In the center, this is the yolk.

SHAVELSON: Okay, I'm going to try the black bean first. Mmm. There are nuts in here.

Ms. WOO: Really good, huh?

SHAVELSON: The moon cakes are not wrapped, and they sit at room temperature, just as safe to eat as they have been for centuries. But the health department's report is due next January, when ancient Asian tradition may collide with modern Western science. For NPR News, I'm Lonny Shavelson in San Francisco's Chinatown.

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