I have been so busy shoveling mooncake into my face, trying to determine which ones are tastiest (in the name of investigative eating of course) that I forgot to write about them before they started disappearing again! Blame the brain slump after the sugar rush. Mooncakes (yuè bĭng) are sweet or savoury cakes eaten all year round, but especially during the Mid-Autumn Festival when the selection on offer balloons from a few choices in the corner of the bakery to what seems like hundreds of sizes, shapes, colours and flavours. During the festival (also known as the Moon Festival or Chinese Lantern Festival) which celebrates the end of the fall harvest, mooncakes are offered between friends, business associates and family. They are packaged in anything from single cakes in simple cellophane wrappers, to a selection of cakes wrapped in delicate tissue paper and nestled in beautifully decorated, elaborate boxes. (You know how you are always thinking it’ll be there tomorrow, I’ll do it tomorrow? Well, that’s what happened with all the beautiful displays of packaged mooncakes I kept swearing I’d photograph the next day. It never happened. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.)
Typical mooncakes are round or rectangular thin pastries with a rich, sweet, dense filling. Traditional mooncakes are made from red bean or lotus seed paste around a salted duck egg yolk that symbolises the full moon. (Salted duck egg in a sweet pie is a lot tastier than it sounds.) The cakes are embossed with various drawings and characters that might say the name of the bakery, the type of filling or the Chinese characters for “longevity” or “harmony”. Other imprints might depict flowers, leaves, vines or one of the various legends surrounding mooncakes:
– Chang’e, the Chinese goddess of the moon – who landed up living there due to an unfortunate string of events involving ten suns in the form of three legged birds living in a mulberry tree, a kick-ass archer and half a coughed up pill – is often depicted. And you thought Scientology was weird.
– Rabbits are another popular choice, with some cakes even baked in the shape of a rabbit. In Chinese mythology, the Jade Rabbit lives on the moon where he pounds away at herbs trying to make another pill for Chang’e so she can get back to earth. I believe this. I’ve seen him. Although to me it looks like he’s lying in a bed with a patchwork quilt, which fits better with the other legend claiming that three fairy sages transformed themselves into pitiful old men and begged for something to eat from a fox, a monkey and a rabbit. The fox and the monkey both had food to give to the old men, but the rabbit, empty-handed, jumped into a fire to cook himself so that they could eat his flesh. Touched by his sacrifice, the sages let him live in the Moon Palace.
– A popular legend claims that moon cakes were instrumental in the overthrow of the Mongol dynasty that ruled China from 1271–1368. As group gatherings were banned, it was impossible to make plans for a rebellion and so the Chinese rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang had to devise a sneaky plan. Noting that the Mongols didn’t eat mooncakes, he timed the uprising to coincide with the Mid-Autumn Festival. He sought permission to distribute thousands of moon cakes to the Chinese residents in the city to bless the longevity of the Mongol emperor. Inside each cake, they inserted a message on a piece of paper that read: “Kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month”. On the night of the Moon Festival, the rebels attacked and overthrew the government and the Ming Dynasty was established. Altogether more my kind of coordinated attack than waiting it out in a smelly wooden horse with thousands of other stinky, farting soldiers. A nice little story (unless you’re Mongolian), but as the Ming troops entered the Mongol capital 7days before the festival, it is probably just that – a story. Also, if mooncakes are eaten to commemorate this legend, then how did they use mooncakes to create the legend? A predestination paradox if you ask me.
But back to the cakes. Bakeries, restaurants, pastry chefs and even ice cream makers have started creating ever more elaborate and interesting mooncakes. If you can stick it in a cake, someone somewhere has made it into a mooncake. Besides the traditional fillings of bean and lotus seed paste, you can also get cakes with jujube (date) and other fruit fillings (MU.Bread’s mango is my absolute favourite!), various chopped nuts and seeds, jams, cheesecake, custard, yams, chocolate and coffee and also savoury fillings like minced pork. (I joined a random food queue in Nanjing East last week on the assumption that if people are queuing for it it must be good and when I got to the counter it was pork mooncakes that had everyone in a frenzy.) And like with all things, you get what you pay for. So you can buy the Twinkie version of a mooncake for a yuan or two at your local supermarket (just with bean paste instead of cream), or splurge on brandied cherry truffle or single malt whisky truffle fillings. Other lavish ingredients include ganache, salted caramel, black truffle, caviar, foie gras and gold leaf to decorate the cakes. And if you’re watching your weight, there are also yoghurt, jelly and fat free ice cream versions. Depending on the region or producer, the crusts can be chewy, crumbly or flaky but will usually contain lard. The mooncakes are cut into little wedges and enjoyed with tea.
You can find mooncakes in just about every bakery, supermarket and corner store in China year round, but the real festival cakes appear in August and for most of September. Outside China you can get them at Asian food shops beginning around mid-August.