Imagine you are Zhu Yuanzhang living in the 14th century, and are of the Han tribe of China. You are tired of living under an oppressive Mongolian overload of the Yuan Dynasty, and desperate to overthrow this ruler. You hatch upon a brilliant plot to unite your people to rise against the conquerers. You receive permission to honor the leader through exchanging gifts with family and friends. These “gifts” were round mooncakes, or message cakes, distributed only to the Han people. When your fellow citizens cut into the Moon cake, they found your message “Revolt on the fifteenth of the eighth moon” – and they did.
But wait, there is another theory to that vital transfer of information for this story: The secret message was imprinted in the surface of mooncakes as a simple puzzle or mosaic. To read the encrypted message, each of the four mooncakes packaged together must be cut into 4 parts each. The 16 pieces of mooncake, were then be pieced together in a manner that the secret messages could be read. The pieces of mooncake are then eaten to destroy the message. Very clever! These days, that writing we see on top is less revolutionary; the imprint consists of the Chinese characters for “longevity” or “harmony” and possibly the name of the bakery and type of filling in the mooncake. Imprints of the moon, Chang’e (Moon Goddess), flowers, vines, or a rabbit (symbol of the moon) may surround the characters for additional decoration. This writing has led some historians to believe that the mooncake might just be the precursor to the fortune cookie.
Today, eating mooncakes does not result in such labor intensive activity and is probably a lot more fun. Mooncakes play a central role in Mid-Autumn Moon Festival representing the gathering of friends and family. The round shape symbolizes the family circle and the circle of life, and are used in rural China to give thanks for a bountiful harvest. The festival is intricately linked to the legends of Chang’e, the mythical Moon Goddess of Immortality. The 15th day of the 8th lunar month is the day called “Mid-Autumn”, and its night is called “Night of the Moon”, it is when the moon is at its brightest and the earth is closest to the moon.
According to Rosemary Gong, in Good Luck Life [a wonderful book about Chinese customers], Chang’e started life as a beautiful servant girl of the Jade Emperor in the Heavenly Palace. Unfortunately, one day she smashed the emperor’s beloved porcelain jar and was banished to earth to spend her days as the daughter of a poor farming family, where she eventually married a young archer named Hou Yi. One day, ten suns rose in the sky and their heat was sure to destroy the earth. Hou Yi was recruited by the gods to shoot down nine of the suns and leave one so the earth would continue to get light and warmth.
For his reward, the Jade Emperor gave Hou Yi the title “The Divine Archer and Ruler of the Solar System” and an elixir for immortality. Hou Yi hid the elixir, and unfortunately became something of an arrogant tyrant. Chang’e desperately tried to change her husband’s behavior, to no avail and upon discovering the elixir consumed it, where upon she floated to the moon. As she floated she transformed into a frog. When she landed on the moon she coughed up the elixir which became a white rabbit or moon hare. Hou Yi, trying to accept his wife’s new status as the Moon Goddess, built a Moon Palace and once a month, on the fifteenth day of the lunar month, when the moon is full they are reunited. In researching this post, I found multiple versions of this story, with wikipedia providing a few versions of this tale.
Celebrating the Festival
A celebration of the Mid-Autumn festival can include a family dinner followed by dessert eaten at the height of the full moon. The meal is typically served banquet style with the number of dishes totals five, seven or nine, which are considered lucky.
In addition to those moon cakes some other food you might find at the festival dinner would be:
Pomelos, AKA Chinese grapefruit – This fruit is believed to ward off evil and promote good health.
Taro – this starchy root was first discovered by the light of the moon on the fifteenth day of the eight lunar month by Soldiers in the Ming Dynasty so what better way to give appreciation for a vegetable that saved them from starvation.
Snails – this delicious food is eaten as a reminder of the earth’s wealth. They also represent a celebration of a truce between battling neighbors in China’s Guangdong Province. Two farmers were plagued with these garden pests and thought the ideal solution was to dump them in their neighbor’s fields. This bickering dangerously escalated until a local magistrate resolved the dispute by serving a delicious meal of these tasting critters on the fifteenth day of the eighth month.
The real celebration starts after dinner when homage is paid. A table is placed outdoors or near a window in the event of cold weather with an offering of thirteen mooncakes, one for each lunar month, stacked in a pyramid. This stack symbolizes happiness for an entire year. Ancestors are remembered by burning incense, lighting candles, and bowing before the family alter. Other items you might find on the festival table include:
- gourds for long-lasting happiness
- apples for peace (the word for apple sounds like “peace” in Chinese)
- pomegranates (their seeds represent a fruitful family)
- moon shaped fruit such as Asian pears, persimmons, grapes, peaches, melons
- soy bean plants represent the heavenly cassia tree
- peanuts for a long life (the word for peanut sounds like growth in Chinese)
- coconuts promote health
- watermelon seeds have the same significance as pomegranate seeds
- tea service
At the height of the celebration when the moon is its fullest, the family dines on the snacks, mooncakes, and tea. Traditional paper lanterns came in a variety of shapes including rabbits, fish, birds, and horses decorate the house. The horse lanterns have added meaning in that it is believed that the moon travels at the speed of the horse. Other designs might include airplanes, rockets and tanks as a nod to current technology. The evening concludes with everyone offering a secret wish to Chang’e.
But back to the mooncakes:
The traditional mooncakes are soft white or red lotus seed paste packed in a smooth golden brown pastry. Lotus paste is a combination of lotus seed and lye water boiled and blended into a paste. The addition of peanut (groundnut) oil and glutinous rice flour results in a sticky paste which is rolled into a ball. The ball is covered with dough and stamped with an intricate pattern. The stamps used to make the patterns are called yuet beng in Cantonese. Mooncakes can be plain or have one to four salted egg yolks in the lotus paste filling to symbolize the full moon – the more yolks, the luckier the mooncake. Apart from egg yolks, some lotus paste fillings are also sprinkled with assorted nuts and fruits.
Mooncakes are rich and dense compared with most Western cakes. They are usually eaten in small wedges accompanied by Chinese tea. Mooncakes are a delicacy with production very labor-intensive so few people make them at home, preferring to buy them at Asian markets and bakeries.
The list of fillings and crusts came from wikipedia.
Many types of fillings can be found in traditional mooncakes according to the region’s culture:
- Lotus seed paste (蓮蓉, lían róng): Considered the original and most luxurious mooncake filling, lotus paste filling is found in all types of mooncakes. Due to the high price of lotus paste, white kidney bean paste is sometimes used as a filler.
- Sweet bean paste (豆沙, dòu shā): Although red bean paste, made from azuki beans, is the most common, regional preferences exist for Mung bean and black bean.
- Jujube paste (棗泥, zǎo ní): A sweet paste made from the jujube (date) plant. The paste is dark red in color, a little fruity/smoky in flavour and slightly sour in taste. Depending on the quality of the paste, jujube paste may be confused with red bean paste, which may be a filler.
- Five kernel (五仁, wǔ rén): Consists of 5 types of nuts and seeds, coarsely chopped and held together with maltose syrup. Commonly used nuts and seeds include: walnuts, pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds, peanuts, sesame, or almonds. The mixture might also contain candied winter melon, jinhua ham, or some rock sugar as added flavoring.
- Taro Paste (芋泥, yù ní): A sweet paste made from taro, a tuber grown found in tropical Asia. The colour of the paste in the mooncake is purple and is commonly used in Teochew crusty mooncakes.
- Salt and pepper (椒鹽, jiāoyán): Made from roasted black sesame. Commonly found in flaky Suzhou-style mooncakes.
- Durian: Commonly found in South East Asia (mainly Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore) made of mashed durian.
Traditional mooncake vary widely depending on the region and country in which they are made. While most regions produce traditional mooncakes with many types of fillings, they usually only make their mooncake from one type of crust. Although vegetarian mooncakes use vegetable oil, many mooncakes use lard in their recipes for a better taste. Three types of mooncake crust are commonly used in Chinese cuisine:
Chewy: This crust has a reddish-brown tone and glossy sheen. It is the preferred crust for Cantonese-style mooncakes. It is also the most commonly seen type of mooncake in North America and many western countries. These crusts are made by combining thick sugar syrup, lye water, flour, and oil, thus giving this crust its rich taste and a chewy yet tender texture.
Flaky: Flaky crusts are most indicative of Suzhou-style mooncakes. The dough is made by rolling together alternating layers of oily dough and flour that has been stir-fried in oil. This crust has a very similar texture to the likes of puff pastry.
Tender: Mooncakes from some provinces of China and Taiwan are often tender, resembling the shortcrust pastry used in Western pie crusts or tart shells. Tender crusts are made mainly of sugar, oil, flour, and water. This type of crust is also found in other Chinese pastries, such as the egg tart.
Regional variations in China
There are many regional variants of the mooncake. Types of traditional mooncakes include:
Cantonese-style mooncake: The Cantonese style mooncake is the most common. Originating from Guangdong province, the Cantonese style mooncake can have over 100 variations. The ingredients used for the fillings are various: lotus seed paste, melon seed paste, ham, chicken, duck, roast pork, mushrooms, egg yolks, etc. More elaborate versions contain four egg yolks, representing the four phases of the moon.
Suzhou-style mooncake: This style began over a thousand years ago, and is known for its layers of flaky dough and generous use of sugar and lard. It is also smaller than most other regional varieties. Suzhou-style mooncakes feature both sweet and savoury types, the latter served hot and usually filled with pork mince.
Beijing-style mooncake: This style has two variations. One is called “di qiang,” influenced by the Suzhou-style mooncake. It has a light foamy dough as opposed to a flaky one. The other variation is called “fan mao” with a flaky white dough. The two most popular fillings are the mountain hawthorn and wisteria blossom. The Beijing-style mooncake is often meticulously decorated.
Chaoshan (Teochew)-style mooncake: This is another flaky crust variety, but is larger than the Suzhou variety. It is close in size to the Cantonese style, but thinner in thickness. A variety of fillings are used, but the aroma of lard after roasting is emphasised.
Ningbo-style mooncake: This style is also inspired by the Suzhou-style. It is prevalent in Zhejiang province and has a compact covering. The fillings are seaweed or ham; it is also known for its spicy and salty flavour.
Yunnan-style mooncake: Also known as “t’o” to the residents, it features a combination of flours for the dough: rice flour, wheat flour, buckwheat flour, and more. Most of the variations within this style are sweet.
Modern mooncakes resemble the traditional cakes with some minor adjustments. Traditional mooncakes are made with lard, and lots of sugar,while modern versions may be a bit more health conscious, plus people’s natural desire to tweak and apply creative ideas took hold. Modern mooncakes differ greatly in the type of fillings available. Filling options are only limited by the chef’s imagination. Customers pick and choose the size and filling of mooncakes that suits their taste.
Snowy mooncakes first appeared on the market in the early 1980s. These non-baked, chilled mooncakes initially contained traditional fillings of lotus seed, red bean, or mung bean paste. In 1994, those creative folks at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore make a champagne truffle snow-skin mooncake that triggered a wave of modern mooncakes. Häagen-Dazs jumped on the wagon and developed ice-cream mooncakes; “traditional,” snow-skin, or Belgian white, milk, and dark chocolate crusts. Some very novel moon cakes continue to come from Singapore.
Other filling options that exist:
- cream cheese
- custard (interesting video by WSJ)
- bird’s nest
- chicken floss
- green tea
- Bailey’s Irish Cream
White kidney bean paste or plain ice-cream are usually the base of flavors for green tea, coffee, or ginseng, which are not thick enough or cannot be usually in large enough quantities to be a filling on their own.
Modern varieties of mooncakes differ from their traditional counterparts in that their crusts typically do not require baking. The two predominate mooncake crusts are:
Glutinous rice: A crust with texture similar to mochi. These moon cakes are known as “snowskin mooncakes” or “ice-skin mooncakes” (冰皮 or 冰皮月餅).
Jelly: A crust made of gelling mixtures such as agar, gelatin, or konjac and flavoured with a variety of fruit flavorings.
If you never had a moon cake, you should give them a try. They are delicious and with all the incredibly inventive varieties out there, you are bound to find one that suits your taste. They are certainly filling. When I was in Hong Kong, I tried a nut filled one which was lucky for me as I spent the day on a trip to a temple, and I did not need anything else.