Over the Moon
Mid-autumn festival and the allure of mooncakes
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 email@example.com