Mooncakes: A 700-year-old tradition

You can tell the Mooncake Festival is approaching in Malaysia because the mooncake stalls have been springing up in all the big shopping centres in the past week, and already they are doing a roaring trade. Strictly speaking the festival should be called the Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival, because it is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, but it has become increasingly commercialised in recent years and is now often referred to as the Mooncake Festival, because of the pastries that are made specially for the festival. Mooncakes are eaten in small wedges, usually with Chinese tea, because they are quite rich (and relatively expensive too). The Mooncake Festival is celebrated in China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia; and Thailand and Vietnam have their own versions of mooncakes (in the latter they are often square instead of round); and Japan and Korea also celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival with similar delicacies.

Mooncakes are quite heavy, and are made with a variety of sweet or savoury fillings, most often lotus paste with a salted egg yoke or two inside (which looks like a moon when cut in half). Other fillings include red bean paste, coconut paste and durian paste. Savoury fillings include chicken floss, ham, pork and mushrooms (especially the Cantonese varieties). They are usually stamped with Chinese characters on top which mean things like ‘harmony’ or ‘longevity’ and may also show what’s inside them and/or the name of the bakery. I read in the local paper that there were over 400 varieties of mooncake on sale in Malaysia this year. In recent years, ice-cream mooncakes, jelly mooncakes and chocolate mooncakes have appeared on the market too, and yesterday I saw an ad for Garfield mooncakes. None of those sound very ‘traditional’ or ‘oriental’ to me.

Even for the traditional mooncakes I think some of the advertising goes overboard. The menu cards in the picture below say: “Experience full happiness and sensational indulgences with our amazing flavours – pamper your taste buds to a lifetime of memories.” Actually, I have difficulty remembering what mooncakes I ate last year, let alone a lifetime. The varieties offered on this menu card include: Cherry Blossom, Ginseng Gem, Noble Delight, Royal Fairy, Scent Temptation, and Golden Starlight. With the exception of the Ginseng Gem, I wouldn’t have a clue what’s in them. Some new varieties I spotted this year were Spicy Dried Shrimp with mixed nuts, Green Tea and Pandan, and for the health conscious - Low Sugar Chinese Yam and Wolfberry. For the not-so-health conscious I saw a Lotus paste mooncake with four yokes.

And what does the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrate? Well, try googling it, and you will find a myriad of different explanations for different countries. Wikipedia describes it as “a popular Asian celebration of abundance and togetherness dating back over 3,000 years to China's Zhou Dynasty.” Mooncakes themselves date back to the Yuan Dynasty, which makes them about 700 years old. Best to check the use-by date when buying yours!

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