The Mid-Autumn Festival is an offering of thanks for a bountiful harvest. It is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month when there is a full moon. The festival originated in China but its celebration has spread to other parts of Asia. Mooncakes are traditionally eaten as part of the festivities.
A few weeks ago, in anticipation of the Mid-Autumn Festival and wanting so much to write about it, I told my husband we should buy mooncakes so I could take photos to serve as a backdrop for a story. Oh, no, he said. Mooncakes are given as gifts. You can’t buy them and eat them.
No, my husband isn’t Chinese. But, before he retired, he worked for decades in an industry where most of his clients were Chinese. It was from chatting, socializing and partying with them that he learned so much about Chinese culture and traditions. Dismayed that any story emanating from mooncakes that we ourselves bought would lack an authentic angle, the plan to write about mooncakes died and got swiftly buried.
Then, last night, my daughter Sam, my travel companion for the Hanoi trip, came home with mooncakes. She must have forgotten that they were in her backpack. It was way past midnight when, after I did a final check downstairs before going to bed, I saw her coming out of her bedroom. She must have heard me making noises in the corridor and, realizing I was still awake, she handed me the mooncakes. I should have anticipated that. For the last couple of years, David’s (Sam’s best friend) parents have been giving us mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn festival.
I don’t know if it was gluttony or the obsessive writer in me that made me want to unpack the mooncakes right there and then. I love mooncakes. I’ve loved them since I was a child. At that unholy hour, I wasn’t particularly hungry so the urge to cut the mooncakes into wedges probably had more to do with wanting to take photos and write about them. In the end, I decided to wait for morning. With everyone in bed, there was no one to share a mooncake with and there was simply no way that I could finish an entire mooncake by myself.
What are mooncakes anyway?
A mooncake is a Chinese pastry with a soft and lightly chewy crust (flaky in the case of Teochew mooncakes) and a dense sweet filling which can either be red or green bean paste, or lotus seed paste. The yolk at the center, from salted duck egg, symbolizes the moon.
Interestingly, the mooncake was not always part of the Mid-Autumn celebration.
According to folk tale, the mooncake was invented to incite revolution
The Chinese have been holding post harvest celebrations during the August full moon for thousands of years going as far back as the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE). There are many legends and folk tales associated with the harvest festival but mooncake did not form part of its traditions until the Yuan Dynasty.
You must have come across the name Genghis Khan and that of his grandson, Kublai Khan. No?
Genghis Khan was the founder of the Mongol Empire which he was able to extend. By the time of his death, the Mongol empire included a substantial part of China.
Kublai Khan was 12 when his grandfather died in 1227. Plenty of bickering and power struggle among Genghis Khan’s heirs followed. But, in 1271, Kublai Khan officially established the Yuan dynasty in China. In 1279, the conquest of China was complete when the Song Dynasty that still ruled the south fell in the Battle of Yamen.
So, there was a conquest dynasty established by the Mongols. The subjugated Han Chinese were not happy. According to folk tale, toward the end of the Yuan Dynasty, the mooncake played an important role in finally ending the Mongol rule of China.
“… the mooncake has come a long way since the first one rolled out of the oven of an enterprising revolutionary by the name of Chu Yuan-chang (朱元璋) during the Yuan Dynasty (1279 to 1368).
“Looking for a way to incite the Han people into revolt against the much-despised Mongols without alerting them, Chu, with the help of his confidant, Liu po-wen (劉伯溫), circulated a rumor that a plague was ravaging the land. The only way to prevent a disaster was to eat special mooncakes that were distributed by Chu and his fellow revolutionaries.
“Distributed solely to Han people, on the outside the cakes looked normal enough. Inside, however, lay a message giving to the day on which the anti-Yuan insurrection was to begin.
“Reading ‘revolt on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month’ the date has since become one of the most important holidays in the Chinese calendar, second only to the Lunar New Year itself.” [Source: “A new mooncake rising”, Taipei Times]
Evolution of the mooncake
And so the mooncake became a fixture in the Mid-Autumn Festival. Over time, variants multiplied. First came regional variations. More recently, with concerns over the amount of fat and sugar in mooncakes, versions that are more in tune with modern health standards began coming out. Mooncake with carrot filling? They exist. Mooncake with tomato filling? They are on the market too.
Are they any good? Haven’t tried them. Yet. For now, I’m quite happy with the ultra rich old school mooncakes. Love them with all that lard and sugar. I get to enjoy them just once a year anyway.