Over the Moon

Mid-au­tumn fes­ti­val and the al­lure of moon­cakes

ChinAfrica - - LIVING IN CHINA - By Fran­cisco Lit­tle

if you’re go­ing to ex­press your love for some­body spe­cial in your life, do­ing it be­neath the light of a full moon is guar­an­teed to place you at the top of the ro­mance spec­trum. In China, at Mid-au­tumn Fes­ti­val, the moon is the guest of honor and along with con­nect­ing hearts, it ush­ers in a na­tion’s in­sa­tiable de­sire for the most “de­li­cious” con­fec­tionery in the East - the moon­cake.

Sec­ond in im­por­tance only to the Chi­nese New Year, the Mid-au­tumn Fes­ti­val, also known as Moon Fes­ti­val, fo­cuses on the re­union of fam­i­lies and loved ones.

Mid-au­tumn Fes­ti­val falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of the tra­di­tional Chi­nese cal­en­dar - Septem­ber 24 this year.

Tra­di­tion­ally a time to cel­e­brate the end of the har­vest sea­son, it’s also a time to re­new old friend­ships and make new friends, and given the moon’s uni­ver­sal mys­ti­cal ap­peal, this is a per­fect time for af­fairs of heart. Homes take on a spe­cial warmth on fes­ti­val evening.

That warmth is kin­dled by the moon cake in­va­sion - some­thing ev­ery for­eigner vis­it­ing or liv­ing in China should see - at least once. This is the only time of the year you’ll see them and wher­ever you are in the coun­try, pre­pare to be ac­costed by ad­verts, jin­gles and ban­ners all pro­claim­ing the de­lec­ta­ble at­tributes of the moon cake phe­nom­e­non. Ev­ery su­per­mar­ket shelf, ven­dors’ stand and restau­rant serv­ing-trol­ley groans un­der the weight of the glis­ten­ing cakes.

A friend of mine told me that she thought it is more dif­fi­cult for for­eign­ers who live abroad among other cul­tures to ad­just their taste buds to desserts as op­posed to sa­vory dishes. The think­ing be­hind this is that from a young age, desserts are al­ways seen as treats and high­lights of a meal, and are gen­er­ally some­thing sweet in the West.

In my ex­pe­ri­ence, moon­cakes do not quite fit this cat­e­gory. Their dense, rich taste make them a bit on the dry, sticky side (like eat­ing a spoon of peanut but­ter) – and no doubt are best con­sumed with co­pi­ous sips of tea or cof­fee. In ad­di­tion, the high con­cen­tra­tion of calo­ries makes them an item to avoid by many Chi­nese women ob­sessed with stay­ing slim.

How­ever for mil­lions of Chi­nese who grew up nib­bling on them while sit­ting on their grandma’s lap and gaz­ing up at the full har­vest moon, the cakes prob­a­bly trig­ger warm fuzzy mem­o­ries of de­li­cious child­hood mo­ments.

As with all tra­di­tions, the fes­ti­val hasn’t es­caped the elec­tronic age, and now it’s be­come pop­u­lar to send fes­ti­val greet­ings and images via so­cial me­dia. But to ex­pe­ri­ence the true feel­ing of the fes­ti­val, you should tuck into the cakes in real time.

For me, moon­cakes are an ac­quired taste of note. A taste that comes in al­most in­fi­nite fla­vors. Tra­di­tion­ally made of lo­tus seed paste, peanut oil and gluti­nous rice flour, all en­cased in pas­try, pressed into a pat­terned tray (usu­ally bearing the logo of the baker) and baked un­til golden brown, the cakes can also be steamed or fried.

The lo­tus paste, which is pricey, can con­tain salted duck egg yolks – sym­bol­iz­ing the shape of the moon. Then, there are va­ri­eties con­tain­ing ev­ery­thing from red bean paste, to cream cheese or gin­seng to de­light the droves of con­sumers. And in keep­ing with mil­len­ni­als driv­ing change, out­lets like Haa­gen-daz and Star­bucks are a big hit, while big de­signer brands such as Louis Vuit­ton and Gucci give their VIP clien­tele spe­cially packed cakes with which to gain mega face.

And moon­cakes don’t just come in a plas­tic wrap­pers or brown pa­per bags. These lu­nar treats are pack­aged in some of the most elab­o­rate and col­or­ful boxes and wrap­pings I’ve ever seen, and ev­ery of­fice worker gets a box full to take home - most of which are given to friends on the quiet.

For for­eign­ers liv­ing in China, eat­ing moon­cakes and gaz­ing at the moon, said by Chi­nese leg­end to be at its round­est and bright­est on the Mid-au­tumn Fes­ti­val, are the way to get caught up in the mo­ment of ro­mance. If you don’t have your spe­cial “other” with you, grab a moon cake for com­pany. Af­ter all, no one should be alone un­der a har­vest moon.

* The writer is a South African liv­ing in Bei­jing * Com­ments to niyan­shuo@chi­nafrica.cn

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