Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! Time for Mooncakes

Today marks the time of year when millions of Chinese families around the world celebrate the Mid-Autumn or Moon Festival. It’s been described as the Chinese equivalent of Thanksgiving, and has been celebrated since the Tang Dynasty in 618 AD.  Traditionally, family and friends gather to eat pastries called mooncakes under the light of the full moon, whose roundness represents completeness and abundance.  The best known version of mooncakes are the Cantonese version, dense pastries with a golden chewy crust, traditionally filled with pastes made of lotus seeds, dates, beans, and sometimes seeds and a salted egg yolk.   Another version is called a snow skin moon cake– these are clad in lighter, flaky pastry made of mochi (glutinous rice) flour.   Pomelos, the Asian citrus resembling a moon-sized grapefruit, are also traditionally enjoyed during this festival.  As with harvest festivals in other cultures, this was traditionally a time for farmers to celebrate the end of the summer harvest season.

 pomelos, via Wikipedia

This is one of the Chinese traditions I didn’t grow up celebrating.  One of my first memories of celebrating the festival was when I spent part of my junior year in college abroad in Singapore.  My new friends, incredulous that I didn’t know much about the Mid-Autumn Festival, bought some delicious green tea moon cakes and served them with exquisite oolong tea, which they poured traditionally in a Chinese terra cotta tea service.  Despite the starkness of the dormitory’s architecture, it was a special and welcoming moment.

I have not yet attempted to make mooncakes at home– maybe next year! But if you’re interested, there is a great recipe for traditional mooncakes at House of Annie .  For a snow skin mooncake recipe, here’s one from A Tiger in the Kitchen author and my friend from Twitter’s #LetsLunch, Cheryl Tan.  My parents, who are currently living in Taipei, told me that in Taiwan another version of mooncakes made of flaky pastry and filled with a lighter mung bean is popular this year.  Zester Daily has a recipe for these.   And if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area and are looking for a good source for mooncakes, both traditional and nouveau, I recommend Sheng Kee Bakery.  I love their newer flavors– pineapple, jasmine green tea, oolong tea and pomelo.

And for some literary sustenance, here’s a classical Chinese poem that was written on the occasion of the Mid-Autumn Festival.  For those who cannot reunite with their families for the festival, the poem reassures that no matter how far two people are separated by distance, they can take comfort in knowing that they gaze at the same moon.

Thinking of You

When will the moon be clear and bright? 
With a cup of wine in my hand, I ask the blue sky 
I don’t know what season it would be 
In the heavens on this night 
I’d like to ride the wind to fly home 
Yet I fear the crystal and jade mansions are 
Much too high and cold for me 
Dancing with my moon-lit shadow 
It does not seem like the human world

The moon rounds the red mansion 
Stoops to silk-pad doors 
Shines upon the sleepless 
Bearing no grudge 
Why does the moon tend to be full when people are apart? 
People may have sorrow or joy, be near or far apart 
The moon may be dim or bright, wax or wane 
This has been going on since the beginning of time 
May we all be blessed with longevity 
Though far apart, we are still able to 
share the beauty 
of the moon together.

On the Mid Autumn Moon Festival of the year 1076, 
I drank happily till dawn 
and wrote this in my cups 
while thinking of my brother Ziyou.

– Su Shi (Su Dong Po) 1076 A.D.
(Translation by Li Shun-Yi in 1998. Source: Chuck@China)

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

3 responses

  1. Is the Mid-Autumn festival also known as the Moon Festival? A friend of ours with adopted Asian kids would celebrate it and invite a bunch of kids including us. It was a fun celebration. The mooncakes though — we never liked them. You?

  2. Yes, also known as the Moon Festival. I am also not a fan of traditional mooncakes, especially the salted yolks, but the modern versions at Sheng Kee, a local chain of Chinese bakeries, are really fantastic, including my favorite, jasmine green tea.

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