Traditionally a harvest celebration, the Mid-Autumn Festival (which took place on Wednesday) is considered the second most important family gathering in China, trailing only the Lunar New Year.
It falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month and its arrival is marked by the sight of mooncakes in every shape and size at bakeries, restaurants and hotels across the country, sometimes up to a month in advance of the festival itself.
Mooncakes are thick and round baked delicacies, typically filled with lotus seed or red bean paste, and imprinted with the Chinese characters for longevity or harmony. Another common feature is patterns depicting the popular legend of Chang’er (the wife of a skilled archer who swallowed her husband’s elixir of immortality and escaped to the moon).
The cakes are enjoyed by families who make a point to gather on the evening of the festival to gaze appreciatively at the full moon, while children play with paper lanterns and the adults sip their tea.
How are mooncakes made?
Though their name was coined in the Tang Dynasty, the earliest record of mooncakes dates as far back as the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, when they were enjoyed in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. Sesame and walnut-filled versions started emerging under the Han, as flourishing trade brought foreign ingredients into China. The cakes were later cemented in folklore in the Yuan period, when revolutionaries mobilised Han villagers in an uprising against Mongolian rule by baking secret messages into the mooncakes they handed out.
Different regional varieties
There are generally seven regional styles of mooncake, but the better known among them are from Guangdong, Suzhou, Yunnan and Beijing. Cantonese mooncakes are the most commonly seen across China, and can contain a wide combination of ingredients from lotus seed paste to Jinhua ham, chicken, roast pork and mushrooms. Most versions contain the yolks of between one and four salted duck eggs, the latter representing the moon’s four phases.
Suzhou mooncakes are flakier, and consist of more sugar and lard. Yunnan-style fare is made with a distinct mix of rice and buckwheat flour and filled with sweet-savoury chunks of Xuanwei ham (from pigs that feast on chestnuts), somewhat akin to a minced pork pie. Beijing’s mooncakes stand out for the elaborate decorations on their thick crusts.
The mooncake market is worth $3 billion a year…
More modern variations abound as chefs launch ever more unusual flavours to compete for a slice of the Rmb20 billion ($3 billion) market. Snowskin mooncakes invented by a Hong Kong bakery in the 1990s and made with a translucent layer of glutinous rice flour have become part of the traditional canon. Molten custard-filled versions, mooncakes in the shape of Hello Kitty or Angry Birds, and ice-cream-filled offerings by Western chains such as Haagen Dazs have also caught on among the younger set.
Where to buy them?
Mooncake connoisseurs generally make a beeline for Dao Xiang Cun’s original store in Beijing’s Qianmen district (59 Qianmen Street. Tel: +8610 8319-7408).
The Qing Dynasty bakery was founded in 1896, although it rose to fame in the 1980s and today it comprises over 100 outlets nationwide.
Its zilaihong is a traditional Beijing-style mooncake filled with osmanthus, peach seeds and dried orange peel. You can identify it from the red circle on its crust. But the bakery also offers Cantonese and Suzhou-style mooncakes if you prefer.
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