Posted by: thelocaldialect | September 15, 2008

Of Moons and Cakes

In honor of the surprise holiday I had today (it was only a surprise to me, apparently everyone else knew about it), I decided I’d tell you a little about Mid-Autumn Festival, the night which marks, unsurprisingly, the middle of the Autumn season, and the full moon. In honor of Mid-Autumn festival Chinese people around the world eat mooncakes, nuts, and take in the moon.

Traditional Chinese festivals have made something of a revival this past year. In Spring, the government cut the regular May Day holiday in half and allocated several of its days to Qing Ming Festival, Grave Sweeping day. This month something similar has been done, with Mid-Autumn festival now deemed worthy of a day off as well. And while local Chinese have not yet, as far as I can tell, started going out for moon-viewing parties, they (and I) certainly enjoyed the three day weekend, if not so much the mooncakes.

Mooncakes have certainly been blogged about before. Most foreigners in China are united in nothing if not their singular hatred for the hard round pastries that are about the size and consistency of hockey pucks. Mooncakes have en extremely dense filling of egg yolk, bean paste, lotus paste, ham, sugar, and other delightful concoctions. Every year employers throughout the country ply their employees with complimentary mooncakes, a rather nice gesture which goes mostly unappreciated by my foreigners. I myself usually gave away my mooncakes to Chinese friends, but now I have a husband who not only tolerates mooncakes, but actually seems to like them. So this year my freebie mooncakes came home with me.
A typical Mooncake

The thing about mooncakes is that they look pretty good on the outside. They are usually glazed and baked to perfection, and have some sort of Chinese character imprinted on top completing the image. Year after year, for the five mid-Autumns that I have passed in China, I have been fooled by outside appearances. I think to myself “you know, that mooncake actually looks pretty good. Maybe I do like mooncakes afterall. How bad could they really be?” And without fail, as soon as I bite into that mooncake, I remember why I dislike them. For one, there is far too much filling. The crust is usually only about about two or three millimeters thick, which means that, when you come right down to it, you’re basically eating a huge chunk of some kind of paste. While red bean paste is all fine and good in small amounts, eating a puck-sized portion in one sitting is not all that pleasant. Then there are the ham mooncakes. I don’t think ham belongs in any kind of cake, period. Finally, the main thing I dislike about mooncakes is that usually they come unmarked and undistinguishable from the outside. It’s a real crapshoot. You might get a lotus paste one, which is tolerable, or you might get a ham one, which would be unacceptable. But you can’t very well go biting into all the mooncakes until you get one that is ok.

Nowadays they have started making mooncakes for people that don’t like mooncakes, which must mean that the mooncake hate is much more widespread than I’d previously imagined. These are appropriately named “snow skin mooncakes” and apparently they taste less like hockey pucks and are slightly less dense than lead. Starbucks brand mooncakes, for example, are “snow skinned” (much like their customer base here in Beijing). They also cost about 300 RMB for a box of four mooncakes. Thanks, but I’ll keep my crappy traditional mooncakes, because as much as I dislike the taste of them, there’s also something fundementally wrong about eating 300 kuai Starbucks snow-skin mooncakes on a day that was supposed to be more about the moon than the cake in the first place. The cakes are called mooncakes because of their shape, they look like a perfectly round full moon. And whether we like them or not, they’re a part of a tradition that dates back for centuries, with all the requisite folktales and legends such a long history entails. It just wouldn’t be mid-Autumn without mooncakes, so while I might not enjoy them, I’ll grant them the respect they deserve and won’t let any trendy mooncake upstarts usurp their rightful place in this family and our celebration of the day.


  1. Wow, Japan and China have quite a lot in common. We just had jugoya the festival of the autumn moon and we get mountains of dango dumplings. Not as dense as mooncakes sound but gluey and chewy and flavourless and adding NOTHING to my enjoyment of the moon!

  2. dude, i am SO with you on this whole thing! you know what i used to to when i got truck loads of moon cakes from students. i would poke a little hole in the BOTTOM to find out what kind it was. if it was the good kind (each box is different so i did have to taste a few nasty ones in the process) i would eat it. then i would give the other ones away and no one knew there was a hole poked in the under part.

  3. I actually really like moon cakes (Ex was Taiwanese so we used to celebrate in Boston Chinatown every year)

    *runs and hides*

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