Giving Thanks with Mooncakes

Zhu Yuanzhang (image from history.cultural-china.com)

Zhu Yuanzhang (image from history.cultural-china.com)

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.

Chang'e (image from Wikipedia)

Chang'e (image from Wikipedia)

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:

What’s inside

more moon cakes

more moon cakes

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.

Traditional mooncake

Fillings

Many types of fillings can be found in traditional mooncakes according to the region’s culture:

moon cakes galore

moon cakes galore

  • 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.

Crusts

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:

moon cakes on Clement

moon cakes on Clement

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 mooncake

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.

Fillings

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)
  • ginseng
  • bird’s nest
  • chicken floss
  • tiramisu
  • green tea
  • pandan
  • durian
  • chocolate
  • coffee
  • peanut
  • 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.

Crusts

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.

Update me when site is updated

31 comments for “Giving Thanks with Mooncakes

  1. October 3, 2009 at 3:16 PM

    I didn’t know the history of mooncakes. Glad to learn so much in one post!

  2. October 3, 2009 at 6:06 PM

    Cool history on the mooncake. It’s been a while since I’ve had some. I’ve always like the bean paste filling or taro when i get them. The Filipino version would be the hopia.

  3. October 3, 2009 at 8:01 PM

    Oooh, the roasted sesame one sounds wonderful. I’ve never seen that type of mooncake around, though. Must look more carefully to see if I can get my hands on one.

  4. October 4, 2009 at 2:05 AM

    Somehow this post made me very hungry and I dont even like sweet things lol. Just love the whole tradition and history behind it1 Thank you so much for sharing :)

  5. October 4, 2009 at 2:23 AM

    Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! There’s always much debate about how many egg yolks there should be in a mooncake. I prefer the single one, but some people love multiple egg yolks, which I find far too rich and sickly. Also, I’ve never managed to eat more than a quarter in one sitting, even with one just egg yolk…

  6. October 4, 2009 at 7:09 AM

    Waw,…what a fantastic & wonderful post this was!! I have seen Mooncakes all over the bloghosphere,…

    I learned a lot!! Thanks!!

  7. October 4, 2009 at 7:41 AM

    It was great to hear the history behind it. I’ve always loved this tradition. It seems so romantic, dining on mooncakes and tea at the height of the full moon. I’m all for it!

  8. October 4, 2009 at 10:33 AM

    Have been seeing mooncakes all over the food blogosphere and now I’ve got some serious cravings going on! I’d be happy with any one but would love to try them all.

  9. October 4, 2009 at 11:50 AM

    As someone who adores folklore and tales from other cultures, I did love this post! I love the history, the tales and the evolution of mooncakes form the past to today! Thanks so much. This was a wonderful read for a rainy Sunday morning.

  10. admin
    October 4, 2009 at 4:33 PM

    Lisa – that was what drove me to write this post – I wanted to understand the backstory.

    Jenn – I’ll have to be on the look out for the Fillipino version.

    Carolyn – if you find a source, please point me in the right direction.

    Ruth – sorry to make you hungry =) You may have to give one of these cakes a try,

    Helen – I can well understand where you are coming from. I think they have to be incredibly economical to consume as one served as all my meals for an entire day! I did not know of all the controversy regarding the number of yolks, thought it might be one baker trying to out do the others.

    Sophie – glad you like it

    Reenie – I’m with you, makes me want to stay up late for tea.

    TN – I’m with you, thankfully I do not have to go too far for a fix, but I am intrigued to try some of the more unique varieties and that may require some hunting.

    Claudia – thanks so much for your comments, given your incredible posts, that’s high praise.

  11. October 4, 2009 at 5:05 PM

    You always write great posts!!!! I learn so much every time I come to your blog….I truly enjoyed this post. Thank you so much for all that info.

  12. October 4, 2009 at 8:00 PM

    Interesting background on the mooncake. I’ve always loved them but never know the history. Dessert at the height of the full moon sounds so lovely!

  13. October 4, 2009 at 8:01 PM

    Interesting background on the mooncake. I’ve always loved them but never knew the history. Dessert at the height of the full moon sounds so lovely!

  14. October 5, 2009 at 1:07 AM

    AAAAAHHH! I miss mooncakes!!! But I never really knew abt the history, just liked to eat it, hee hee! 😉

    Which one is your favorite?

  15. October 5, 2009 at 6:43 AM

    Once again you have proved what an exceptional writer and researcher you are! I didn’t even know mooncakes existed and now I know everything about them – thank you!!

  16. admin
    October 5, 2009 at 7:06 AM

    Erica – thanks so much!

    Lisa – I’m with you, dessert at midnight does sound special

    Sophia – I have to pick one? Leave it to you to come up with challenging tests =)

    Crystal – thanks so much! You’ll have to try a mooncake sometime, just not sure where you would find one where you live.

  17. October 5, 2009 at 7:56 AM

    my darling – you are making me so homesick! Out of college, before my foodie life began I worked for a small asian-american advertising firm in SF and lunar festival was huge. Everyone was exchanging mooncakes. My favorite is the taro or sweet bean inside. The one’s with the “100” year old eggs inside freak me out a bit though. Great post – I didn’t realize their were so many variations.

  18. October 5, 2009 at 8:29 AM

    I’ve seen mooncakes recently in the blogosphere but have never tried them, hope I will very soon. Fascinating to read the history, excellent post!

  19. October 5, 2009 at 9:29 AM

    What a great post on the history of mooncakes and the different types too – I think I’m only familiar with the Cantonese ones (I bought 4 yesterday!). Do you know which category the round flaky looking ones fall into?

  20. admin
    October 5, 2009 at 1:30 PM

    Gastro – I did not mean to make you homesick, and I hope you can at least get your hands on a few mooncakes in London, to help with that problem =) Otherwise you’ll just have to make another trip back to the states. You hit on two of my favorites from the classics, and I agree, the 100 year old egg sounds a bit suspicious. I am curious about the more modern take on the fillings.

    Natasha – thanks for the compliment and you’ll have to try them, although a Chinese bakery in DC does not immediately spring to mind.

    Su-Lin – thanks for the compliment Enjoy eating those pockets of goodness! I’m not sure of the catagory as based on the descriptions I had they might fall into a couple of catagories. I’ll see if I can find more details.

  21. October 5, 2009 at 2:21 PM

    I enjoyed reading this post. I didn’t know about mooncakes. I loved the story behind it. And hiding messages in it sounds so intersting! I’m sure it requires a lot of work. Family gatherings to celebrate Mid-Autumn festival must be a lot of fun!

  22. October 6, 2009 at 4:29 AM

    Love reading your story-telling style. ^0^
    It reminds me of the fun of making lanterns in my childhood.
    I haven’t celebrated Mid-Autumn festival for many years. Luckily, have eaten some moon cakes to have a festive feel.

  23. October 7, 2009 at 3:35 PM

    I like to see different customs like this Chinese and now spread for all Asia. Beautiful all the history about the mooncakes I enjoy them when I’ve a chance :)

    Cheers!

    Gera

  24. October 7, 2009 at 3:37 PM

    fantastic post!! the sight of mooncakes bring back such nostalgic, happy memories of childhood and big family dinners to celebrate the mid-autumn festival. so special, so cherished.

  25. admin
    October 7, 2009 at 4:01 PM

    Zerrin – I agree about the intriguing idea of hiding stuff in your food – definitely a topic for another post.

    Christine – what fun, I bet you had a wonderful time preparing for the festival.

    Gera – Its so much fun to learn about different cultures and this one had just so many interesting aspects to it!

    Giao – Thanks- I learned a writing this post, and envy you a bit for the fun I bet you had.

  26. October 9, 2009 at 10:29 AM

    I actually got to try this years ago with a friend, and it was not bad, the filling was kind of sweet, but with tea it was great…

  27. October 13, 2009 at 11:12 AM

    Awesome post!! I learned so much about mooncakes from reading this (more than I ever did from my Chinese parents!) I ate them every year growing up (always thought the egg yolk inside was bizarre) but since moving to NJ I rarely see them so I always forget about the festival every year (just like how I forget about Canadian thanksgiving). Last year, I was lucky enough to try a pandan flavored mooncake from a Malaysian restaurant- yum.

  28. October 26, 2009 at 2:10 PM

    (I’m slowly making my way through your older posts here …)

    Great post, as always, LouAnn. I thought I knew a lot about mooncakes, but you’ve managed to show me I was wrong. :) What can I say? I just love the stuff to death. Very calorically-dense, but oh, the taste …

    I brought two dozen back from Thailand this past summer.

  29. admin
    October 26, 2009 at 3:02 PM

    Chef E – they have so many varieties out now, I am sure you’ll find something to suit your fancy!

    Phyllis – Thanks! Oh I’d love to try a pandan flavored version. Maybe you could do one of your amazing taste comparisons. The varieties seem endless.

    Leela – thanks! I had a lot of fun researching this post. I always loved the backstory. Very calorie dense indeed. Are the mooncakes from Thailand that much better than what you find in the states? Probably a silly question.

  30. November 9, 2009 at 11:48 AM

    just stumbled on your site…you’re go so much great info! Thanks for this informative post!

  31. December 4, 2009 at 11:11 PM

    what a lovely post, I can see that alot of time and effort went into it. I ate mooncakes for the first time in Beijing on a trip there two years ago and I wish I knew all this information then, as it would have made eating mooncakes more significant.

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