Three years ago, we met a friend on the tube back home after attending a Mid-autumn celebration in central London. This meant we had some mooncakes in tow, and in my usual excitement, I offered him one which he gladly accepted.
He told us a few days later that he had the whole mooncake in one go. I felt a little guilty as I should have taken the time to explain a little more how he really should have savoured it in quarters (at most!) in one sitting, instead of the whole thing. Perhaps he could have shared it with his wife, and his two children too?
And it was then when it occurred to me that this ‘mooncake’ must have been completely different to what he had imagined.
‘Mooncakes’ are a literal translation from ‘月餅’ but the idea of what ‘cakes’ mean and look in Chinese culinary culture is rather dissimilar to how cakes are in the anglophone world. Of course this is sweeping generalisation, but this is also why Chinese bakeries that sell a selection of sweet and savoury baked products are very popular for overseas students.
In the case of mooncakes, they are probably more appropriately referred to as small pastries made with different fillings. It takes after the shape of the moon which holds strong symbolic meanings in pagan festivities and Chinese literary culture. There is also a historical reason why they were eaten on Mid-Autumn, as I wrote about this last year.
Traditional ones also contain a salted duck yolk in the middle that to many is often considered the best part. There are different regional variations of the mooncake – from Cantonese lotus seed pastries to savoury Yunnan-style ones with ham ones too.
As with everything else this year seems a little different. With a long weekend here in Hong Kong, normally many people would flee the city for a getaway in neighbouring countries. But this is no longer possible with travel restrictions in place, whilst social distancing rules at dining establishments remain that deter large family gatherings take place for Mid-Autumn Festival.
But celebrations for the festival continued with mooncakes – so many to choose from and especially so at the local supermarket. I wrote last year about how the Mid-Autumn Festival is now championed by industry rather than the home. The idea of industry has definitely changed as mooncakes have never really been a product of the home.
You’d find more traditional kinds these days, but also snowy and ice-cream varieties – everyone in the food business are innovating to join in with this important festival. This is not a good or bad thing, but simply an observation on how family structures and living arrangements have changed since I was a child back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
This is why I have huge admiration seeing food enthusiasts on social media making their own, and the same exact reason why I wanted to try making some this year – snowy mooncakes being more accessible than traditional baked ones.
There is also a role mooncakes play in the circular economy of gifting to express gratitude and thoughts – a gesture which resembles the Christmas card. I’ve found myself buying a couple of boxes of mooncakes for the workers at our housing estate, as well as being the recipient of mooncakes from family and coworkers alike too.
There’s so much to say about the symbolic meanings that the moon holds in Chinese culture. The same it seems is for neighbouring Asian cultures too including the Korean Chuseok and also in Vietnam. But one thing for certain is that we all live under the same moon – no matter where you are around the world. And this is why the moon evokes such sentimental and nostalgic feelings being the closest to earth on the day of Mid-Autumn.
Apart from the Chinese New Year, this is also a special celebration that I wanted Audrey to learn more about growing up in a ‘nuclear family’. I remembered going into her nursery to talk about it, but also how it ties with autumnal harvest.
So this is why seasonal fruit and produce are also celebrated and enjoyed as part of the family get-togethers on this day, but mooncakes have completely overshadowed this importance. Should I, like everyone else, accept this an undeniable consumerist trend…?