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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.