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Happy Mid-Autumn Festival (Time to eat some moon cakes!)

September 22, 2021
A care package of moon cakes sent off to a college freshman.

For folks who didn’t grow up in families that celebrated what’s properly called the Mid-Autumn Festival, here’s a little background.

It’s that time of year again, when hockey-puck but delicious cakes appear in shops, students learn poems and people gaze at the moon and think of far-away loved ones.

It’s a traditional celebration held on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month in the Chinese calendar, when the moon is at its fullest and brightest of the year. This year it’s September 21, 2021.

There are many stories about the festival centering on the Goddess of the Moon, Chang’e 嫦娥 and her husband the archer Houyi 后羿, who are only allowed to see each other once every year on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon is full.

At it heart, though, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a harvest celebration. Just like at Thanksgiving, families try to be together for the holiday.

There is plenty of symbolism for the holiday that is about the full moon. The moon is round, symbolic of the family coming together. It’s popular to eat a family meal together called tuán yuán fàn 团圆饭 or “reunion dinner.”

If the family can’t all get together, they they all look at the moon and think of those who are not together with them knowing they’re all looking at the same moon.

In China people exchange lyrical text messages talking about how they wish they could be together. You can find some examples here.

It’s also a time to eat moon cakes. In my family we tend to call it “the festival of moon cakes.” These are dense treats consisting of a thin pastry coating over a disk of (generally) sweet red bean paste or lotus seed paste. Lotus seed paste is very sweet and something like the Chinese equivalent of marzipan.

Inside that sweet filling in many moon cakes is a single, hard-cooked, salted yolk from a duck egg. The saltiness of the yolk contrasts nicely with the sweetness of the filling, or at least it does for me. Some moon cakes feature two yolks, which seems like too much for me but your taste may vary. But perhaps more importantly in a culture enamored of symbolism in food, the egg yolk is thought to look like the full, round moon. Moon cakes are cut into thin wedges and typically served with tea.

Moon cakes have become an important present to give during the weeks around the Moon Festival. Go into any Asian supermarket and you’ll find the front of the store piled high with stacks of different types and price points, depending on the quality and how fancy the packaging is. While sweet red bean paste and lotus seed paste are the most common, you’ll also find nut-filled, pineapple and melon (these are vile, I’m just warning you.) There are also smaller silver dollar-sized moon cakes that are more single serving.

This year we can’t go visit family and friends. But we can send texts, look at the moon and know that they, too, stand under the same moon. We’re all in this together.

And if you’d been wondering how moon cakes are made, here are some cool videos:

How mooncakes are made

Making traditional mooncakes

Mooncakes: What they are and how they’re made

Explaining the mooncake

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