Moon Cakes Shine for Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival

Moon to be the brightest during Moon Festival September 15

photos by Tina Johansson

by Long Hwa-shu

Mark my words: The moon will be the brightest Thursday night unless it rains.

It’s the Mid-Autumn Festival, or simply the “Moon Festival” to the Chinese. The festival, equivalent to Thanksgiving, celebrates harvests. Traditionally, peasants take a rest on that day to eat a bountiful meal from what they grew and raised, and to watch the beautiful moon at night and eat mooncake.

The festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth moon every year on the Chinese lunar calendar. On the western or Gregorian calendar it is on Thursday, Sept. 15. As proven by the accuracy of the lunar calendar year after year, the moon will be at its fullest and brightest on that night.

It’s the day, as the Chinese saying goes, ‘to raise your head to look at the bright moon and lower your head to think about the homeland.’

To the Chinese, the Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the three most important festivals. The others are the Spring Festival which celebrates the New Year and the Dragon Boat Festival which falls on the fifth day of the fifth moon. It was on June 9 this year. Chicago’s Chinatown marked the day with a dragon boat race near the shore of Lake Michigan.

Like the New Year celebration, the Mid-Autumn Festival is an occasion for family reunions. For those who are far away from home and cannot make it to the family reunion dinner, it’s the day, as the Chinese saying goes, “to raise your head to look at the bright moon and lower your head to think about the homeland.”

Legend has it that on that night Chang-O, the moon goddess, will be seen dancing on the moon which adds to a romantic and mysterious dimension to the festival. It’s the night that inspires poets to write what come to their minds.

Moon cakes come in a variety of sweet and savory flavors. But one thing's for certain - they must be eaten during Moon Festival tonight!
Moon cakes come in a variety of sweet and savory flavors, and are available only once a year during the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival.

Food is always an important component when the Chinese celebrate, Beside a family reunion dinner and endless round of bottoms up, the indispensable food for this festival is the moon cake. It is a baked pastry, round in shape to simulate the moon and stuffed with a variety of filings including sweet paste made from dates, red beans or lotus seeds, or pieces of ham with an egg yolk – to name a few.

Moon cakes are sold in Chinese grocery stores in fancy tin boxes and cost $20 or more for a box of four. The cakes generally come in two styles: Cantonese and Suzhou.  Cantonese is about one inch thick and baked to a luxurious shine. The Suzhou kind is thinner, lightly baked with a crumbly crust.

Legend has it that on that night Chang-O, the moon goddess, will be seen dancing on the moon which adds to a romantic and mysterious dimension to the festival.

According to Chinese folklore, moon cakes were first used as a means of communication in the 14th century by underground fighters rising against the invading Mongols toward the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368). Written messages were hidden in the moon cakes, much as those found in today’s fortune cookies.

Those original moon cakes had to be crude and coarse, compared to the modern ones which are rich, sumptuous and sinfully delicious. They are used as gifts exchanged between friends and business associates.

The trick to buy moon cakes is to wait until after the festival. I can guarantee that prices will be drastically reduced. Because they are sealed in their individual packages they stay fresh for a long time.

Didn’t anyone ever tell you that patience is a Chinese virtue?

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