What the heck is a mooncake?

This weekend is Mid-Autumn Festival, or the Moon Festival, which is observed all throughout Eastern Asia. One of the first things many people associate with this festival are the ubiquitous heart bombs ~ mooncakes. Before we get into those, however, here is a brief introduction to the holiday and how people celebrate it.

What is it all about?

The festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar, which happens right around a full moon. It has origins from celebrating harvests and moon worship, and is observed mainly in China and Chinese-speaking countries, and Vietnam. Korea and Japan also have corresponding festivals, also centered around celebrating the harvest and the moon.

Who do people see in the moon?

In China, people do not see a man in the moon, nor do they think it is made of cheese. Instead, they see a tragic woman named Chang’e (pronounced as Chahng-uh), as well as a rabbit making a potion and a woodcutter trying to chop down a cassia tree. Kind of makes just seeing a man up there a little lame…

The legend of Chang’e varies by region, but essentially a long, long time ago, 10 suns rose up into the sky, scorching the Earth. A guy named Hou-yi (Hoe-ee) was the best archer around and was summoned to shoot them down. He did, leaving just the one we have now. He was rewarded with immortality in the form of a pill. Chang’e, the love of his life, either knowingly or accidentally gobbled it up upon finding it, and floated to the moon where she now remains. Poor Hou-yi, according to version, is either left heart-struck or angry, actually shooting arrows at her as she ascended to the moon.

Luckily for Chang’e, she is not alone up there. There is a shape on the moon thought in China to be of a rabbit working with a mortar and pestle. It is also thought that the rabbit is busy working on an elixir to keep Chang’e alive. The woodcutter is believed to be constantly cutting down a cassia tree, the giver of life, which always immediately regrows. This is said to represent the cycle of life on Earth. In the pic below, you can see the outline of the rabbit on the moon (from Wikipedia):


How is it celebrated?

Like all holidays everywhere, the modern focus on the festival is to get together with family and friends, enjoying each other and enjoying life. In some places, they celebrate with lanterns, just like those used during the Lantern Festival at the end of Chinese New Year. Many people have moon gazing parties, while in Taiwan the celebration resembles the 4th of July in the USA: friends and family gather together and barbecue. Sure, what is barbecued is different, but the same sort of party atmosphere exists. By the way, do you want to know what is great on the grill, ala Taiwan? Squid! And also baby clams wrapped in foil on thrown on the fire. A few minutes later they have popped open and are steaming in their own juices. Below is what a grocery in Taiwan looks like just before the holiday. Lower right corner? Chicken butts. At the store where we took this, there were six rows like this, all containing different animals and veggies ready for the grill.


Ok… So what is a mooncake?

Flaky, buttery dough filled with a dense, sweet paste made from lotus seed, usually with a salted egg yolk inside to represent the full moon. They are small, but pack about 500 calories for a single serving! Modern mooncakes now have varying flavors, and usually have the Chinese character for longevity on top. Interesting fact: these fattening bundles of symbolism once proved very helpful during the Ming revolution in China when they were trying to overthrow Mongolian rulers. It is said that secret messages were packed inside with information to coordinate a revolution on the next Moon Festival.

In modern times, they are given as gifts in elaborately decorated boxes from friend to friend, boss to employee, stranger to stranger, and probably enemy to enemy. They are definitely an acquired taste. Though some locals love them, most are just meh about them, while others can’t stand them. They all eat them, however. Maybe they are the Eastern equivalent of fruitcake?

Wanna make them? Here is a nice video explaining how:

And here is another version found on Huffpost

Aside from mooncakes, other popular foods to eat during the holiday incude pumpkin, duck, taro, river snails, crab, watermelon, and big plump pomelos. A fun tradition with the pomelo (kind of like a giant grapefruit) is to peel it carefully and place the whole rind on your head like a hat. It is said to bring good luck to children as the Chinese name for pomelo You-zi is a homophone for words meaning “prayer for the son.” But, it is also a homophone for the Chinese words for “childish” which is probably much more representative of why people do it!

Happy Mid Autumn Festival everybody! Go look at the moon, hug your family, and eat some grilled squid!

Cover Photo credit: “Moon Cakes” by misbehave – Moon CakesUploaded by Atlaslin. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moon_Cakes.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Moon_Cakes.jpg

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