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Moon Cakes and Mid-Autumn Festival

Yes, it’s that time of year where retailers and bakeries are promoting the ubiquitous ‘moon cake‘ to help kick off the The Mid-Autumn Festival. In Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, it may be referred to as the Lantern Festival.

The Festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month of the Chinese calendar. In the Western calendar, the day of the festival usually occurs sometime between the second week of September and the second week of October. At this time, the moon is at its fullest and brightest, marking an ideal time to celebrate the abundance of the summer’s harvest. The traditional food of this festival is the moon cake, of which there are many different varieties. The Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the two most important holidays in the Chinese calendar (the other being the Chinese Lunar New Year).

There are many tales about the significance of the mooncake:

Children are told the ancient story of the moon fairy who lived in a crystal palace and came out only to dance on the moon’s shadowed surface.

Another legend links them to a mythical day when 10 suns appeared at once in the sky. The emperor ordered a famous archer to shoot down the nine extra suns. When the task was accomplished, he was awarded a pill that would make him immortal but it was only eaten by his beautiful wife Chang E. After taking the pill, she floated all the way to the moon and it is said her beauty is greatest on the day of the moon festival that takes place on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month.

There is a saying in Chinese that marriages are made in heaven and prepared on the moon. The man who does the preparing is the old man of the moon (Yueh Lao Yeh). This old man, it is said, keeps a record book with all the names of newborn babies. He is the one heavenly person who knows everyone’s future partners, and nobody can fight the decisions written down in his book. He is one reason why the moon is so important in Chinese mythology and especially at the time of the Moon Festival. Everybody including children, hikes up high mountains or hills or onto open beached to view the moon in the hope that he will grant their wishes.

In the most famous legend, however, mooncakes are used to conceal secret messages sent among Chinese revolutionaries plotting the overthrow of the Mongol invaders in the 14th century.

In Chinese celestial cosmology, the moon represents the female principle, or yin. During ancient autumn Moon Festivals, women took center stage because the moon is considered feminine. Only women took part in Moon Festival rituals on the night of the full moon. Altars would be set up in households, and when the full moon appeared, women would make offerings of incense, candles, fruit, flowers, and mooncakes. Today, Chinese celebrate the festival with colourful lanterns.

Besides its significance in Chinese history, mooncakes play an important role in August Moon gatherings and gift giving. These palm-sized round cakes symbolize family unity and perfection. Some mooncakes have a golden yellow egg yoke in the center which looks like a bright moon. They usually come in a box of four and are packaged in tin boxes with traditional Chinese motifs.

A traditional mooncake is made of a sweet bean-paste filling with golden brown flaky skin. The top of the mooncake is embossed with the insignia of the baker molded into the golden brown skin. It takes 2 to 4 weeks to prepare the bean-paste. Because making mooncakes is labor intensive, many families just buy them from bakeries.

Mooncake molds are custom-made with the insignia of the baker. Many Chinese people are willing to pay a higher price for mooncakes from reputable bakers. Thus, the baker’s insignia is very important. To adapt to today’s health conscious and Westernized lifestyle, many bakeries offer miniature mooncakes and fat-free mooncakes. Some are made of yogurt, jelly and fat-free ice cream.

Steeped in tradition and history, this is no ordinary cake!