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Moon Cakes

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Holidays and Celebrations

Fall Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(3) page(s): 36 and 37

You may recall the Letter to the Editor from Patricia in Pittsburgh asking why these cakes were used to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. Our reply mentions the September 2013 issue of China Today saying they could be traced back three thousand or so years and have been popular for that many years. That brought a flood of further queries. They all wanted more information.

Compiling their questions and answering them in a single article about these dense delights, readers should know they are available not just near this holiday which is mostly known as the Moon Cake Festival, but also known as the August Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, and Reunion Day. Held in late September or Early October on the Gregorian calendar, the fifteenth day of the eighth month on the Chinese Lunar calendar, moon cakes are now available in most Chinese markets and bakeries year round. They are also available in many other Asian markets.

During the Zhou Dynasty (122 - 770 BCE), people were offering sacrifices to the moon every night for many nights, beginning on August 15th. During the Jin Dynasty (221 - 206 BCE), many were also gazing at the moon during these days. They did so into the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE) and during the Song Dynasty, too (960 - 1280 CE). It was in the Song, that this holiday was officially designated an official festival day.

In some places it is officially celebrated on August 16th because on this day, moon cakes were said to have been sent to the Emperor's troops by his Tiantai people. However, the fifteenth day is the one all of China now celebrates this holiday. There was an article about Tiantai holiday foods in Volume 17(4) on page 15 and beyond. If you do not, check it out; it is on this magazine's website at www.flavorandfortune.com

Of course, customs for this holiday vary somewhat by location. Many include dancing, feasting, gazing at the moon, also worshiping it. On this day, some people set out fragrant incense on lovely tables outside their front door and burn it there. Others gather and write poems. All eat moon cakes, and many give these delicacies as gifts to friends and relatives on this day when the moon is at its maximum annual brightness. Children are told the story of the fairy princess living in the moon's crystal palace. They learn she comes out to dance in the moon's shadow this night. Many try too see if they can catch a glimpse of her then.

Many adults and children in Southern China and in Hong Kong make and carry brightly lit lanterns on this evening. Some hang them on their doors. Others may do both and build and burn towers of moon cakes made of leftovers from last year, the bigger the tower, the better.

There are many different stories told about this festival. One we learned as a teen was that ten suns appeared in the sky and that an Emperor ordered a famous archer to shoot down the nine extra ones. We also learned that after he did, the archer was given a reward, a pill that promised eternal life. That archer incidentally, was to Houyi who married a young heavenly beauty called Chang E. The story I recall, goes on that Chang E finds and swallows his pill and begins to fly. She becomes a fairy. Later, people begin to pray to her for peace; many still do.

One reader wondered if the early pastries made to honor her were with walnuts and called Taishi Cakes? We never did learn the answer to that question; perhaps you know and can educate us. Another article told us they were named in memory of the Prime Minister of the last Shang Emperor, Zhang Qian (200 - 114 BCE), and were round or square, with sesame seeds and walnuts. As we found only one reference to that, and we do prefer two or three to confirm what we read, here again we need your help.

In the above story, we learned Emperor Taizong was not fond of the name they were called then, hubing, so one night when out eating some with one of his four beauties, namely Lady Yang Yuhuan, he looked up at the moon and exclaimed "these are wonderful yuebing or moon cakes. This name of these pastries has been used ever since. It also may be why many have a preserved egg yolk, resembling the moon, inside them.

During the Northern Song Dynasty (960 - 1127 CE) more ingredients were added to this Mid-Autumn Festival confection; and the name for them became zong qi. Current folk celebrate family togetherness on this day. They tell us it is symbolized by the round full moon. During this holiday, families gather for an evening meal and then go outside together to enjoy the moon.

The fillings of these cakes are close to those made hundreds of years ago. The outside skin or wrapping is commonly made with lard, egg, and sugar. It is filled with a small egg such as a quail egg in the middle and some fruit and/or nut paste around it; not the large yolk most have in them now.

Beside eating moon cakes, a common food enjoyed while looking at the moon on this holiday is pomelo which is (Citrus maxima or Citrus grandis). In fancy bakeries there are exotic cakes wrapped in puff pastry; and we have seen and eaten variations filled with glutinous rice, durian, jelly, even ice cream. You may have seen them, even fancier ones, and eaten them, too.

We do not know the original date of this festival. Sinologists seem to be unsure of it, too. Some say it was late in the Han Dynasty, others report it long thereafter. There are folks who believe it was even before the Han Dynasty. We once did read this holiday began with the Yao people, many currently living in Southern China. Why them? This day is the first day of their New Year, and they are known to worship the Moon Goddess that night. There are those who think not, but see this holiday beginning in Northern China when local peasants harvested millet and sorghum. We have yet to learn more. If you know when and where, please share your knowledge; your written resources, too.

We should mention newer thoughts about this holiday. The founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, originated the idea of putting a piece of paper into each moon cake with a secret message. These papers included notes to encourage a revolt against the Mongol people then occupying China. He wanted to bring down their Yuan Dynasty (1279 - 1368 CE).

Another question we were asked, was when was writing first used on the top of the dough that wraps moon cakes? Not sure when, but the imprint on their tops can indicate their contents or say 'longevity,' 'harmony' or 'happiness.' To the best of our knowledge, these messages became popular in the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE), as messages stuffed into them appeared then. As to types of fillings in these cakes, they now include not just salted hard-cooked egg yolks, but with many vegetarians, some bakeries and some people make theirs with one hundred percent vegetarian shortening, no egg and no lard. Buddhists and vegetarians enjoy them made these ways.

For those who want to make their own moon cakes, a slow and difficult but rewarding task, we know of only two cookbooks solely dedicated to this food, and none other with even one decent moon cake recipe. They are Moonlit Mid-Autumn Festivals published in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia by Seashore Publishing in 2010. It has an ISBN of 978-967-5413-53-7. The other is Mooncake Sonata by Alan Ooi. That volume has the same publisher, the year is 2011, the ISBN is 978-967-099-3-7. If you know of others, here again, advise.

In the next issue we will publish a recipe composite of several of these recipes. They are from Martin Yan and others who shared them. This issue has no space to do include them. Some advice before we do: Do not over-knead the moon cake dough wrapping, and before using a new mold, do soak it for three days in vegetable oil, then let it dry for three more days. Before using it the first time and every time thereafter, lightly dust it with cornstarch or a similar flour.

These moon cake books suggest making the stuffing with some syrup; that helps keep it intact. They say to never use water when making moon cakes, and do not over-stuff them; and when knocking the moon cake out of its wooden (or these days, its plastic mold) hit the mold gently on both sides and always handle it gently when it does fall out. They suggest carefully putting it on a dry baking sheet two or three inches apart from any other moon cake. One other hint, store your wooden moon cake molds in a cool dark place, not near other foods, and always wrapped one by one in clean white tissue paper.>br>

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