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It’s moon cake time again – Celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival

September 12, 2022
A lotus seed-filled moon cake with one egg yolk.

If your kids start bringing home drawings of lanterns, talking about the Goddess of the Moon or describing lotus seed cakes in class, then you know it’s time for the Mid-Autumn Festival.

For folks who didn’t grow up in families that celebrated what’s also known as the Moon Festival, here’s a little background.

The holiday is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, on a full moon. Because it uses a lunar calendar, the date shifts somewhat but is always in the early autumn. This year it falls on September 15.

It’s a day for friends and family to gather, offer thanks for the fall harvest and express wishes for longevity and good fortune. Similar holidays are celebrated in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and across Southeast Asia.

Lanterns are carried and displayed as symbolic beacons to light people’s path to prosperity and good fortune. If you have kids in a Mandarin immersion elementary program, there’s a good chance they’ll be bringing home construction paper lanterns at some point.

They might also hear legends about the festival centering on the Goddess of the Moon, Chang’e 嫦娥 and her husband the archer Houyi 后羿 This unlucky pair 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 its heart, though, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a harvest celebration. Just like at Thanksgiving, families try to be together for the holiday. If the family can’t all get together, 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.

There is plenty of symbolism for the holiday around 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.”

It’s also a time to eat moon cakes. In my family we call it “the festival of moon cakes.” These are dense treats about the size of a hockey puck (or Amazon Dot for the younger generation) and consist of a thin pastry coating over a disk of something sweet. They’re usually filled with sweet red bean paste or lotus seed paste. The latter is something like the Chinese equivalent of marzipan.

Packing up moon cakes to send to far-away college students.

Inside that 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.

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 seem to be a love ’em or hate ’em kind of thing. Some Chinese people I know describe them as “China’s answer to the fruitcake, something people give you and you pass on as quick as you can so you don’t actually have to eat them.” Others (like me) actually like them.

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 (the melon ones are vile, I’m just warning you.) There are also smaller silver dollar-sized moon cakes that are more single serving.

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

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 13, 2022 1:19 am

    Thank you, happy Mid-Autumn Festival to you too!

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