Known as piggy biscuits, mooncake biscuits or doll biscuits (which is a direct translation of its Cantonese name, “gong zai beng”), they’re only available whenever mooncakes are on sale. These biscuits are the little sweet snacks made with the same dough as the outer layer of the mooncake, but it’s baked without filling and is much thicker and heavier.
These nostalgic snacks were a big favourite among children in Hong Kong as well as the Chinese in Singapore or Malaysia. What makes this snack even more nostalgic is the fact that they’re sold in tiny plastic hanging ‘pig cages’ that resemble cages that live pigs used to be transported in.
History of the piggy biscuit
The origin of piggy biscuits come from the tradition of baking actual mooncakes. Bakers would put small pieces of the mooncake dough (without filling) in the oven to test the texture of their dough and the heat of the oven before actually making the mooncakes.
Over time, bakers began to shape the dough into forms of pigs, earning them the nickname ‘piggy biscuits’. They also made little baskets to put these biscuits in to resemble pigs being transported in cages. These biscuits were often given as gifts to customers who bought their mooncakes. Over the years, the shapes evolved to resemble other beautiful animals like fish, lions, and butterflies — mostly animals considered auspicious in Chinese tradition.
Back in the day, mooncakes were often so expensive that in Hong Kong, there were ‘mooncake clubs’ where people could pay for their mooncakes in monthly installments. Since mooncakes were expensive, children were given the cheap piggy biscuits instead because they didn’t contain expensive ingredients. The children would also sometimes use the baskets as a makeshift lanterns by placing candles in them.
Pig cages were once used to drown adulterers
While the piggy biscuit and cage are rather cute representatives of the Mid-Autumn Festival, pig cages didn’t really have a pleasant history. During the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, adulterers in rural China – usually women – were placed in pig cages where there were trapped and drowned.
So how did pigs and cages become so popular as a wholesome family celebration? Apparently pigs and pig cages have many different meanings in Chinese culture. One of the most plausible explanations is that it relates to an auspicious Lunar New Year greeting: the Chinese would wish people good luck by having riches flow into their lives like ‘water into a pig’s cage’ (豬籠入水). The image refers to a pig cage submerged in water, with water gushing in from all directions.
How it’s made
Mooncake dough is pretty unique to each bakery. While the cake flour, peanut oil, lye (alkaline) water are standard ingredients, each baker has their own unique golden syrup formulation which makes the mooncake taste different from recipe to recipe. Golden syrup is inverted sugar made by refining sugar by treating it with acid.
The dough is then pressed into a special mould which come in shapes like pigs and other animal shapes, and then baked.