Grace Young, the conscience of Chinatown, bites into a mooncake. “That flavor!” she tells me. “Can you believe it?!”

We are huddled in tiny Kuih Cafe on quiet Eldridge Street, enjoying a tasty dress rehearsal for Chinatown’s greatest annual moment of culinary couture: the release of chef Veronica Gan’s mooncakes for Mid-Autumn Festival, a core Chinese festival (along with Chinese New Year, the Qingming Festival, and the Dragon Boat Festival).

Other bakers hawk mooncakes for weeks before the Lunar Festival — which this year falls on September 29 — but Gan, 54, and known to fans as “auntie,” sells hers day-of only. Never imported from Hong Kong or rolled out of factories, hers are painstakingly handmade. For Gan, a former fashion designer, her lineup is more than a mooncake Fashion Week: It’s the mooncake Met Gala.

“In my humble opinion, these are the most-coveted mooncakes in all of Chinatown,” says Young, who, even with all the strings she can pull, had to wait a year just to try Gan’s sable-like salted duck yolk butter cookie — let alone mooncakes.

This year’s $80 mooncake set includes a classic baked mooncake with a luscious core of pandan and duck yolk, but the stars are three mochi-like snowskin mooncakes with dynamic flavor profiles (pandan lotus! rose lychee! sour kumquat cream cheese!) and a savory vegetarian pig mooncake as well as additional rabbit mooncakes filled with pineapple jam (rabbits are sold separately: $8 each or a box of four for $36). All purchases are walk-in only.

Gan started planning in June. Her recipes endure weeks of experimentation — taking bold new trajectories even in the homestretch.

“I want people to enjoy them so much that the joy is experienced even before they eat,” says Gan. “Fashion and food are the same. You eat it with your mouth or your eyes. You feel it with your tongue or your hands.”

Born in Malaysia but a New Yorker since 1999, Gan’s palate embraces tradition, experimentation, nostalgia, and authenticity. She is not aiming to scale into food halls, malls, or airports. She is making boutique batches of perfect treats and hoping that the universe rewards perfection.

The universe hasn’t gotten the memo. Opened in February 2020, Gan and Kuih Cafe — which also sells ice cream, chicken dishes, and tea — have been besieged not just by the pandemic, but the financial crises of rent and debt that followed as well as the cultural and criminal crises of anti-Asian bigotry.

“One day if it’s closed I’m too tired. I need to rest. I don’t have anybody. It’s just me,” Gan says. (Recently, her husband, Chen Lin, who has been helping out in the kitchen, broke his arm in a bicycle accident but still prepares scoops of Gan’s fleeting homemade durian ice cream with his one good hand.)

I brought a mooncake preview (and tea) to my friend Raymond Yiu, the Hong Kong-born composer, in London. The rabbit was “tangy and airy and the rose lychee snowskin had “stunning, layered flavors,” he says. “I love something to bite into — the lychee bits — like ice cream with real fruit. Then the tea brought forward the rose taste. Once you start the ritual, the different flavors just parade past you.”

Because mooncakes should be shared over tea, Eater asked Alice Liu, the second-generation 29-year-old co-owner of Grand Tea & Imports — started in 2006 by her father, who is known as “Teafucius” — to develop pairings.

Snow emerald mooncake with white peony tea

“White peony is the go-to white tea for fancy dim sum,” says Liu. “It’s scraggly, as natural as it gets.” That makes it a perfect foil to the intentional flavor mix: pandan snowskin filled with pandan lotus paste peppered with crumbled pine nuts, around a core of salted duck yolk tempered by butter beans.

Rose lychee mooncake with Yunnan black tea

Last year’s crowdpleaser returns with new dragonfruit snowskin; it’s quite fragrant and floral. “Because black tea is the most oxidized of the six types of tea, it teases out sweeter and floral notes,” says Liu, whose shop sells both rose and lychee versions of black tea. “It’s strong flavor to cut through strong decadence.”

Sour kumquat mooncake with ripe pu-erh tea

A butterfly pea flower snowskin is filled with a sour kumquat cream cheese and steamed coconut, serving dreamsicle energy while keeping the ingredients elusive. Gan says, “I wanted citrus but lemon is too strong and orange is too ...ordinary.” Liu suggests ripe pu-erh tea based on the fact that her tangerine pu-erh tea is a bestseller. “The citrus is given body by the earthiness, and the earthiness is given bright, zingy zestiness.”

Baked emerald mooncake with roasted iron goddess of mercy tea

“This is the OG tea for the OG mooncake,” says Liu. “It’s more long-lasting scent because it has longevity from the back of the mouth after swallowing but still has that strong, referential first taste.”

Little piggy mooncake with osmanthus green tea

In the Yangtze River Delta of cities like Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Suzhou and provinces like Jiangsu and Zhejiang mooncakes are often savory and paired with osmanthus tea desserts like wine, sticky rice balls, and sweet fermented rice soup. So osmanthus green tea is a common sense pairing here. “It‘s floral to balance against the umami and it gives brightness to the crumbly taste [of strands of salted soy flour with seaweed and sesame],” says Liu.

Rabbit pineapple tart with chrysanthemum tea

Yes, 2023 is the year of the rabbit but it’s frequently tied to mooncakes regardless of the zodiac, here in a twist on classic pineapple tarts. “Chrysanthemum’s floral notes will balance the tropical citrus,” says Liu. “It’s herbal (so not caffeinated) but still reminds you of home or Taiwanese fenglisu; it’s very familiar to childhoods, whether today’s children or generations ago — nostalgic in a really intentional way, not vague or wistful.”

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