What’s up with mooncakes?

What’s up with mooncakes?

On the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese Han Calendar, on the night of the full-moon, the Mid-Autumn Festival takes place (last 24th September). On this day, when the moon is supposed to reach its brightest peak, numerous cultures dedicate rituals to celebrating the moon in relation to agricultural practices, but in many countries in Asia the Mid-Autumn Festival is solely dedicated to the worship of the moon itself.

The legend tells the story of how Chang’E, a mortal woman, became a goddess, the moon goddess. It may sound like a glorious happy ending story but it is actually a tale of loyalty, separation and longing. In a dramatic attempt to prevent a villain from stealing it, she drank the magic potion of immortality meant for her husband, Hou Yi. Transformed into a heavenly creature and flown to the Heavens, Chang’E was parted from her beloved for eternity. Her husband, torn by sadness on learning what happened, laid out as sacrifice her favourite fruits and cakes. Chang’E chose the moon as her residence so she can watch over him and the world.

Following the story of Chang’E (the moon), the Mid-Autumn Festival starter-pack includes food offerings, inevitable incense burning, family reunion and, of course, mooncakes.

A mooncake can look and taste in a number of different ways but the one thing that unites all the varieties is the round, full-moon shape (even though sometimes they could be square). This is the fundamental point, as it represents the symbol of wholeness and union therefore, by association, the Festival is a moment meant to gather family and friends together and wonder at the moon while sharing a slice of mooncake.

They generally consist of a thin crust, soft or crispy, enveloping a generous filling characterised by a dense, sticky and chewy texture. Most commonly you would come across the Cantonese-style mooncakes, proper round shaped, golden blocks containing thick sweet lotus seed paste embracing a salted duck egg yolk, while in Eastern China the filling can become savoury, classically roasted pork but also pickled mustard vegetables.

In latest years there has been an expansion in the fashion of mooncakes which moved away from traditional fillings, to somebody’s delight, and emphasized the aesthetics of the packaging. Now you can easily find for example more sophisticated mochi crusted, ice-cream filled ones coming in a finely decorated box with drawers containing singularly wrapped mooncakes.

Opinion among the public differs, from those who adore them to those who find them inedible, but one thing is for sure, mooncakes are a cornerstone in Chinese culture.

Dr. Francesca Scotti
Moon Garden Curator