I can't really remember when I first noticed mooncakes, but it must have been quite soon after I arrived in Shanghai because these things have been on my mind (and in my face) for weeks now. The most intriguing were probably the ones I saw at Starbucks, just because they are beautifully coloured and all I wanted to do was photograph and then taste them. Once I saw how expensive they were that idea quickly faded into the back of my mind but I still wanted to know more about these mysterious little pastries.
Anyone not living under a rock in Shanghai may have noticed loads of beautifully moulded pastries in many international chains, independent bakeries, larger supermarkets and convenience stores over the last couple of months. This might have sparked an interest in these mysterious little bundles of cake. What are they? What’s inside of them? What do they taste like? What are they made of?
Mooncakes, or yuè bĭng (月餅), are eaten around the Mid-Autumn Festival in China, a week-long national holiday that usually takes place in October. They’re often given as gifts to family, friends or business associates around this time. They’re small baked cakes with a thin pastry shell, traditionally hand-crafted and filled with a very dense red bean or lotus seed paste and imprinted with various symbols.
Legend has it that mooncakes were used during the Ming Revolution to smuggle messages used to overthrow the Mongolians who were ruling China at the end of the Yuan dynasty. Rumours were started about a devastating plague that was spreading across the land and the only way to cure it was by eating mooncakes. As terror spread so did the popularity of these small round pastries, which were said to have healing properties when, in fact, they contained hidden messages orchestrating the Han Chinese revolt on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month.
Hundreds of years later, chains such as Starbucks and Haagen Dazs have somewhat commercialised the ancient concept by launching their own ranges, which are quite different by comparison. Flavours such as ‘Osmanthus Cranberry,’ ‘Hazelnut Latte,’ ‘Caramel Macchiato’ and ‘Lychee and Raspberry’ are a far cry from traditional flavours like date, lotus seed, or seed and nut paste. Haagen Dazs went one step further and replaced their filling with ice cream, covering them in chocolate instead of pastry. There are even mochi-covered mooncakes or chocolate mooncakes, which are usually frowned upon by purists. These deviations are also said to have pushed the price of mooncakes up over the last few years, with talks of a ‘mooncake bubble’ has developed in China.
Here are some guidelines with regards to the more traditional fillings:
Those new to mooncakes will probably want to give this one a try first as it could be considered a ‘safer’ option in terms of flavour familiarity. It’s very sweet and incredibly rich, as one would expect from a custard, although the filling itself isn’t as creamy.
Lotus Seed Paste with Egg Yolk
Apparently the most traditional of fillings, lotus seed paste is also the most expensive. It is also often paired with a salty egg yolk centre which symbolised the moon. It’s an acquired taste, quite savoury and salty.
Fragrant Ham with Five Kernels
An interesting combination of flavours, including candied ham and a combination of five coarsely chopped nuts and seeds (anything from almonds, watermelon seeds, peanuts, walnuts, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, etc.) The texture is chewy but crunchy and probably not a favourite of most mooncake rookies.
Red Bean Paste
Used in many Chinese desserts, red bean paste is made from Azuki beans. A gorgeous colour, it’s a very thick filling that tastes somewhat like sweet potato.
Another ‘safe’ option, the flavour and texture of this mooncake is exactly what it says it is. If you like coconut, you’ll probably really enjoy this variant.
Mooncakes are incredibly dense and very rich, which explains why they’re usually cut into 4 parts and shared between family and friends. Another explanation for this dates back to the legend of the hidden messages, as it’s said that the symbols which were imprinted on the top of them were also hidden codes, only decipherable by cutting them into fours and using the pieces to decode a secret puzzle.
If you’re living in China, or have Chinese friends, definitely give them a try and decide for yourself which flavours you like the most and which ones you’re likely to avoid in the future. They make lovely gifts and are a very important part of the Mid-Autumn Festival, one of the four most important festivals in China.
I’d like to state for the record that I'm not a fan of mooncakes, especially the Lotus Seed Paste variety (which strangely enough seems to be a favourite amongst mooncake eaters). I am wondering how much stock is going to be left after the festival this weekend (ahem, Starbucks & Haagen Dazs) so I'll be on the lookout for the mooncake sale if there is such a thing. We're talking about R500+ for 6 small cakes. I make mention of a "mooncake bubble" in my story, the struggle is real. Definitely going to make my own next year, although I'd like to enjoy eating them so I'm going to try to find a good DIY recipe somewhere, preferably lotus seed and durian paste-free.