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Moon Cakes, Part 1: Savor Chinese Autumn Festival

Moon cakes

The harvest moon is a time of great celebration in China. Referred to in English as both the Moon Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival, this holiday is held during the eighth full moon of the lunar year (Sept. 30 in 2012). And, as with summer’s Dragon Boat Festival and spring’s Chinese New Year, traditional foods are an important part of this major Chinese celebration.

When that huge white orb rises in the east at the end of this month, Chinese will do as they have done for millennia: gaze at the moon, nibble on the filled pastries known as moon cakes, and tell their children stories about the lady Chang’e and the jade rabbit who live up there.

Both of these tales have to do with the search for immortality. The husband of Chang’e obtained an elixir of immortality from the Queen of the Western Heavens. Before he could take it, though, Chang’e discovered the concoction, quickly swallowed when she heard her ill-tempered husband returning home, and floated up to the moon, where her face can still be seen — what we in the West call the Man in the Moon. If you rotate that image 90 degrees to the left (counterclockwise), you should also be able to make out the Jade Rabbit pounding up more elixir in a mortar.

Apollo 11’s Man on the Moon and a ‘Bunny Girl’

These two legends eventually crossed the Pacific to become part of American history: According to the Apollo 11 moon landing transcript in July 1969, Houston told astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin that “among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, there’s one asking that you watch out for a lovely girl with a big rabbit,” and the myth was then described to him. Aldrin replied, “OK. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.”

After she fled to the moon, Chang’e came to be worshiped in China as Taiyin niangniang, or the Moon Goddess. Traditional households used to offer moon cakes to her on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, as well as such seasonal presents as sprays of cockscomb flowers, soybean pods with their tendrils attached and muskmelons. This was a completely female ceremony, but as the sun went down, everyone in the village would walk outside with round paper lamps as reflections of the moon’s benevolent light, sharing the round cakes that mirror the shape of the moon, and celebrating the harvest season with a sweet treat.

Moon cakes: Recipes vary with region

Every region of China has its own version of moon cakes. In Beijing and the rest of the north, the pastry tends to be white, with a feathery exterior so flaky that this version is known as fanmao, or ruffled fur. In the areas around the Yangtze River near Shanghai, people make moon cakes of puff pastry, while in southern areas around Guangdong and even farther west, bakers prefer to use a cookie dough scented with caramel. This last version is the one we generally see in Chinese grocery stores.

The fillings, too, reflect the culinary styles of the region. Some are made with bean paste, others with Chinese dates or coconut, and still others with a crunchy mixture of nuts and dried fruits, as in the recipe in Part 2 of this series. Some even have a whole salted egg yolk wrapped up in sweet bean paste, which provides a lovely savory and buttery texture to each bite.

Top photo: Fruit- and nut-filled moon cakes. Credit: Carolyn Phillips

Coming on Sept. 26, Part 2: An updated recipe for fresh and delicious homemade moon cakes. For a sneak preview, see slide show below.


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Chinese pastry molds. Credit: Carolyn Phillips

Zester Daily contributor Carolyn Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney's in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as  disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.