Table talk: Why do Chinese eat mooncakes?
GROWING up in Singapore, Mid-Autumn festival meant an array of mooncakes to choose from, and a trip to the local park complete with my paper lantern, a pack of candles, and sparklers. My cousins and I would walk around the park with our lanterns, then use the remaining candles to light up the footpath, creating a little dreamworld in the middle of our urban setting.
As a university student far away from home, I’m no longer privy to such a privilege. While mum and dad used to bring home box after box of mooncakes from big-name hotels, now I stare longingly at photos on Facebook as my friends and relatives enjoy mooncakes from back home.
With Mid-Autumn festival coming up, some of my friends have begun asking me, “Why do Chinese eat mooncakes?”
There are many stories explaining the birth of the Mid-Autumn festival. But first, the facts. As its name suggests, Mid-Autumn festival celebrates, well, the middle of Autumn, on the 15th of the eighth month on the Lunar calendar. The moon is touted to be the brightest and most prominent on this day. Most of us Chinese drink tea and eat mooncakes while appreciating the beauty of the moon.
The first legend involves Hou Yi, a talented young archer, and his beautiful wife Chang Er. Legend has it that both Chang Er and Hou Yi were immortals residing in heaven. One day, the Jade Emperor’s ten sons turned into ten suns, scorching the Earth. When the Emperor turned to Hou Yi for a solution, Hou Yi shot nine suns, leaving one to warm the earth. Naturally, the Emperor was angered at Hou Yi’s resolution, and commanded him and Chang Er to live on Earth as mortals.
As Chang Er really missed her immortal life, Hou Yi decided to go on a quest in search of the pill of immortality. His search ended when the Queen Mother of the West provided him the pill with a warning: each person only needs half a pill to gain immortality. Hou Yi went home with the pill tucked in a box, warning Chang Er not to touch the pill. But curiosity got the better of her and she ingested the entire pill. The overdose caused her to float towards the moon. Hou Yi was devastated that his wife was floating away, and could have shot her down, but chose not to. Eventually Chang Er arrived on the moon, where she found that she was not alone: a jade rabbit was there first.
Which brings me to the next story…
Legend has it that three deities transformed themselves into poor old men. Hungry and tired, they asked a fox, monkey and rabbit for food. The fox and monkey both offered food from their stash. The rabbit, having nothing to offer, decided to give himself up to feed the deities, and jumped straight into a fire. Touched by the rabbit’s sacrifice, the deities decided to let him live in a palace on the moon, where he is known as the Jade Rabbit.
The last story brings with it a little history, and explains how mooncakes first started.
China was under the rule of Mongolian People during the Yuan Dynasty (A.D. 1280-1368). Leaders from the previous Sung Dynasty (A.D. 960-1280) were dissatisfied at submitting to foreign rule, and started to coordinate rebellion to overthrow the Mongolians. The leaders of the rebellion began to order a special batch of cakes as Mid-Autumn festival was drawing near. In these cakes, they inserted a piece of paper with details of the attack. Hence, only those who received the cakes and ate them would receive information on the upcoming strike against Mongolian rule. On the night of the festival, the rebels successfully overthrew the government and established the Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644). Today, mooncakes are eaten to commemorate this legend.
These days, mooncakes are easily available from most Asian grocers. There are many different types of mooncakes passed down from different parts of China. The most distinct type is passed down from Canton, and is known as the Cantonese mooncake. It has a baked pastry, and traditional fillings include lotus paste, red bean paste and mung bean paste. Some mooncakes include one or two salted egg yolks nestled in the middle to provide a slight contrast in taste.
Another type of mooncake has been passed down from the Chinese city of Swatow, where those who belong to the Teochew dialect reside. The Teochew mooncakes have a flaky pastry, and traditional fillings are mung bean paste and taro paste. Buyers can choose to buy those with or without the salted egg yolk as well.
A more decadent version of the moon cake is the snow skin moon cake, where the outer pastry is made of glutinous rice flour, sugar, shortening and cold water, and fillings can range from traditional ones like red bean and lotus paste to really wacky flavours like chocolate and champagne truffle. These moon cakes are chilled, not baked, and are considered a modern version of the traditional moon cake.
Other versions include ice-cream mooncakes, jelly mooncakes… the list goes on, and each year bakeries come up with different flavours and versions in order to stay competitive.
As for my favourite? It has to be Maxim’s snow skin moon cakes. It comes in a large box with four large moon cakes, or a smaller version with two small ones. The black sesame flavour is to die for!
Don’t forget to enjoy your moon cakes with tea – it is said that the tea will be able to bring some comfort to the slightly cloying sweetness of the moon cake, and is healthy to boot.
Last but not least, to celebrate Mid-Autumn festival in Melbourne, head down to the Queen Victoria Market this Sunday from 9am to 4pm where there will be a carnival with Asian street food, handicraft stalls, martial arts displays and more.
Happy Mid-Autumn festival everyone!
How are you celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival? And which is your favourite variety of mooncake? Which shop do you rate? Tell us in the comments section below.