What is a Mooncake?
A mooncake is a specialty pastry eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival in China and parts of Asia. This festival is meant to celebrate friendship, fertility, and togetherness, and a number of traditions are associated with celebrating the festival. Mooncakes are an important part of this tradition, acknowledging the bright autumn moon which is overhead during the Mid-Autumn Festival. This festival is sometimes called the Moon Festival in a reference to the central role played by the moon, and it always falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month.
Traditionally, people purchase mooncakes from bakeries and specialty stores, because they are time-consuming to make at home. Each mooncake is stamped with a Chinese character for harmony or a similar sentiment, along with the name of the bakery and a description of the filling of the mooncake. Mooncakes can be rather expensive, making them costly delicacies.
Unlike pastries in many other regions of the world, mooncakes are very dense, rich, and heavy. Most people cannot eat a whole mooncake on their own, with families cutting their mooncakes into wedges and eating them together. Some mooncakes are round in shape, referencing the full moon, while others are molded into squares or rectangles.
The classic filling for mooncakes is lotus seed paste, although sweet red bean paste and jujube paste are not uncommon. Many bakeries enclose the yolk of a preserved salted egg, representing the full moon, wrapping the filling in a thin pastry wrapper which may be tender, chewy, or flaky, depending on the bakery and regional tastes. Many mooncakes are made with lard, which gives them a slightly oily, fatty flavor.
In the 20th century, mooncake recipes began to diverge radically from their ancient roots. Today, mooncakes can be found enclosed in jelly or glutinous rice, and the filling may range from the exotic to the mundane. Green tea paste, pineapple, durian, ginseng, peanuts, cream cheese, tiramisu, and ice cream can all be found lurking under the outer layers of a mooncake. Some bakeries even make health-conscious versions with alternatives to lard, for people who dislike the slightly oily taste of traditional mooncakes.
If you happen to be in Asia during the Mid-Autumn Festival, chances are high that you will be offered a mooncake or a piece of one as a gesture of friendship and goodwill, and you may be encouraged to offer mooncakes as gifts to hosts and business associates. Mooncakes are often exchanged between friends and families, as well as being eaten at home, and the rules of courtesy dictate that you accept with a smile, whether or not you intend to eat it.
There is also a mythological story behind the mooncake, my grandmother used to tell me this story when I was young.
From what I can remember, it was about an archer and ten suns. The archer shot down all the suns except for one and was prized with an elixir that his wife drank. His wife rose to the moon as a result and the archer would offer different foods in her memory. Based on this myth, people started gifting mooncakes to one another every year in fall.
I think mooncakes have become too commercialized nowadays. Even Western restaurant chains in China make their own version of mooncake. I prefer the traditional kind.
What a beautiful idea to celebrate friendship and togetherness! And that too by sharing a mooncake with someone!
Every time I read about a Chinese festival or tradition, I'm surprised by the concept. I think Chinese festivals and traditions are great and very thoughtful. I've also noticed that many Asian traditions encourage togetherness and unity with dishes and foods that are meant to be eaten with other people and preferably over long, friendly conversations.
I've never had a mooncake but if I'm ever offered one, I will take up the offer with a lot of enthusiasm!
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