It’s Foodie Tuesday!
Growing up in the Philippines, I remember fondly how our family would receive mooncakes from our family friends around September. While our family is not Filipino-Chinese at all, the tradition of giving mooncakes is still popular among families, and we usually receive one or two boxes a year.
I never really thought about mooncakes back then beyond the fact they came in brightly colored tins, looked like large stamps, and had a sweet pasty filling. I also had no idea that the mooncake giving tradition was also linked to a cultural celebration, the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival.
The festival is usually celebrated today in China and Vietnam, with regions in each of the countries celebrating their own traditions accompanying the main celebration. Common festivites include eating mooncakes, matchmaking, the use of lanterns and fire dragon dances. The festival pays homage to the moon goddess for a good harvest (the festival traditionally marks the end of the autumn harvest).
There is a legend attributed to the Mid-Autumn Festival, which tells the story of the deities Houyi and Chang’e. As with any legend there are several interpretations, but each version usually follows a basic storyline.
Houyi and Chang’e were a married couple, and embody the principle of Yin and Yang. As a reward for his service to the emperor, Houyi recieved a pill that would grant him immortality, but he could only take it after preparing himself for a year. He hid it in their home, but one day Chang’e discovered it, took it, and realizing what she had done, immediately fled to the moon.
Despite his efforts to chase after her, Houyi had to return to earth because strong winds. Upon reaching the moon, Chang’e coughed up part of the pill and could not fly anymore. In order for her to return to her husband she commanded the jade rabbit on the moon to pound herbs for another pill, but the rabbit is unsuccessful and continues to try to make the pill. Houyi then built himself a palace in the sun and visits his wife once a year on the date of the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Outside of large Chinese communities however the Mid-Autumn festival is really all about the mooncakes. The cakes themselves are made from a molasses-sweetened dough, which is wrapped around several types of sweet filling. Common fillings include lotus paste and duck egg yolk, and red bean paste.
The cakes themselves are usually round, but in recent years there have been plenty of variations in their shapes and sizes. Some mooncakes today are also not made of the traditional dough and use jelly on the outside. Likewise, the mold patterns that appear on the top of the mooncakes have evolved from the traditional Chinese motifs, with bakeries and mooncake manufacturers putting their own unique pattern on the cakes.
I found a few interesting examples of mooncake patterns and designs, including a Hello Kitty version, and a tiramisu mooncake made by Starbucks.
I didn’t get to eat any mooncake this year but next year I’ll be sure to take a trip to my local Chinese bakery for some of these treats! For the more adventurous epicurean, there are also several sites online for people who want to try to make their own.