What’s the deal with Asia’s fascination with the mooncake, a 2000-calorie Moon Festival treat? We dig into the details of how this culinary staple is so important in the Autumn months.
Since moving to Vietnam nearly two years ago, I’ve come to think of September as the beginning of the global holiday season, since it hosts the Mid-Autumn Festival here in Vietnam, and the Moon Festival in neighbouring China and Hong Kong. This festival, celebrating the moon or the harvest and a smattering of other charming folktales, is characterised by a special treat— mooncakes.
Americans have pie, and the British have scones, but mooncakes take the cake. As I write this, my computer is telling me that “mooncake” should be two words, but for locals and foreigners alike, they’re simply mooncakes. No break. No pause between. To call these “moon cakes” would be to make them ordinary, simple things- and simple they are not.
These luscious, golden-brown and shiny treats get their charming exterior thanks to a well-applied egg white glaze, and shaped with crenelations and Chinese characters – or corporate brands, depending on who gave you the cakes. I like to think that the Chinese characters traditionally stamped into the top of each mooncake say something like “bon appetite” or “you know you want to try some”, but I have been told by some locals that they are blessings for prosperity, good health, and other well wishes.
The Story Behind Mooncakes
One of the most charming and beguiling things about mooncakes is the fact that outside of a certain time of the year, they’re all but impossible to find. About a month before the lunar Moon Festival – called Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam – the roadsides throughout much of Asia erupt in mooncake madness. Massive stalls sell mooncakes in dazzlingly ornate boxes, corporations shell out hundreds to create custom mooncake gift boxes for their clients, and families swap mooncake selections with family members young and old. Mooncakes are perhaps the most important element of Mid-Autumn Festival, and for very good reason.
The very design of the mooncake tells you about its significance for the festival. Since this time of year is when the moon is at its roundest and fullest, the round shape of the cakes symbolises the moon while also signifying the unification of family – an important Mid-Autumn value. The eating of mooncakes under the round moon is meant to evoke longing for distance relatives and friends, and giving them as gifts is a local way of wishing for the recipients’ long life and happiness.
Cakes… That Aren’t Cakes at All
For many people unpracticed in the art of mooncake selecting and eating, the weight of a mooncake when placed in hand comes as quite a shock. One hears the word “cake” and thinks of a fluffy concoction of flour, sugar and eggs. “Cake” is really quite a misnomer in this instance, and can be a bit deceiving: mooncakes are dense, hearty things.
They are often sold by weight, rather than size, and typically start at 200 or 250 grams. Though at first a single mooncake looks to be roughly the size of a standard slice of cake, most people are quick to realize from the first bite that they cannot tackle an entire mooncake alone. With their density and heartiness, mooncakes are meant for sharing.
Mooncake Flavours for the Uninitiated
In Vietnam, mooncakes are limited to more traditional flavors like lotus seed, sesame, and various sweetened tubers like taro. But if you are feeling adventurous, you might delve into the complicated world of savoury mooncakes. These are, in my opinion, the Asian equivalent of a Cornish pasty or an Australian meat pie, but with a whole lot more.
“Though at first a single mooncake looks to be roughly the size of a standard slice of cake, most people are quick to realize from the first bite that they cannot tackle an entire mooncake alone. With their density and heartiness, mooncakes are meant for sharing.”
The savory mooncake includes chicken, assorted nuts and seeds, vegetables of all kinds, and an egg yolk. All these ingredients are combined and baked, and the result is a kind of amalgamation of preserved and dried things. Eating a savory mooncake is much like eating a savory trail mix with added dried meats. The only thing it’s missing is cheese! I imagine that people on long journeys, perhaps sailors looking for a water route to India, or wagon drivers on the Oregon Trail might have enjoyed something similar to these.
The Deal with the Egg Yolk
But of all of mooncake ingredients that baffle the uninitiated, it’s most certainly the egg yolk. Since mooncakes are not called “moon”cakes for no reason, it’s understandable that one of its principal ingredients would allude to its namesake. That ingredient is a full egg yolk, somehow baked right into the middle of every mooncake.
Sometimes, the yolk is smack dab in the center, full-moon style. Sometimes it migrates to the side. It’s a roll of the dice as to where the yolk will be. This yolk is not simply baked: it is a salted and preserved. With a somewhat sandy consistency, the yolk serves as an interesting contrast with the sweet mooncakes, and a nice compliment to their savory brethren.
Getting in on the Mooncake Fun
Getting a taste of Asia’s most charming festival treat is as easy as walking out of your front door. If you’re in Asia during the lead-up to the Moon Festival – this year, the festival takes place on September 27th, and the weeks beforehand are the best time to stock up on mooncakes – these tasty treats will be available nearly everywhere.
Most hotels have their very own mooncake varieties, and have special flavours for each year. These are a guaranteed place to get top-quality mooncakes well-worth the pretty penny.
Sofitel Plaza Hanoi, 1 Thanh Nien Road
Fortuna Hotel, 6B Lang Ha
Hanoi Hilton Opera, 1 Le Thanh Tong
Ho Chi Minh City
Sheraton Saigon Hotel, 88 Dong Khoi
Windsor Plaza Hotel, 18 An Duong Vuong
Grand Hyatt, 1 East Chang-an Avenue
Kerry Hotel, 1 Guanghua Road
Four Seasons, 48 Liangmaqiao Road
Grand Kempinski Hotel, 1288 Lujiazui Road, Pudong
New World Shanghai, 1555 Dingxi Road
Shanghai Marriott, Xizang Middle Road, Huangpu
The Peninsula Hotel, Salisbury Road
The Kowloon Hotel, 19-21 Nathan Road
Hotel Icon, 18 Science Museum Road, Tsim Sha Tsui
Raffles Hotel, 1 Beach Road
InterContinental Hotel, 80 Middle Road
Mandarin Orchard Singapore, 333 Orchard Road