Festivals and food symbolism abound in China, but the prestige enjoyed by the mooncake is almost unmatched.
In fact, the Mid-Autumn Festival, the most important celebration after the Chinese New Year, is also known as the Mooncake Festival, with the round confection as the event’s hugely popular centerpiece. Come the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar—in other words, when the moon is at its brightest and fullest—a mania for this traditional delicacy sweeps across Chinese communities around the world.
MYTHS AND MEANINGS
The significance of the Mid-Autumn Festival comes from the harvest moon. Its perfectly rotund shape is the ultimate symbol of unity, and in days gone by, families would join together during the festival to thank the gods for the harvest and make ritual offerings.
It was during these gatherings that they made mooncakes, round pastries designed to look like the moon with rich, decadent fillings like salted duck egg yolks, sugar, and red beans or lotus seeds. The cakes were sliced to equal the number of family members and then shared to celebrate unity.
Underscoring their prominence in Chinese culture are the myths and folklore around them. Han Chinese revolutionaries supposedly hid secret messages, either inside the cake or even as puzzles imprinted on the surface, planning to overthrow Mongol rule. What’s more, eating the mooncakes destroyed all the evidence.
While some harvest rituals are no longer around today, other traditions remain the same for the all-important gathering of family and friends.
Certain households still offer round seasonal fruits, like pomegranate or grapefruit, as well as incense and candlesticks, arranging them on an altar-like table facing the moon.
Families pour Chinese tea, enjoy mooncake wedges and then, weather permitting, they wait for the full moon’s reflection to appear in the center of their teacup in homage to the moon worshiping of yore.
MODERNIZING THE MOONCAKE
Today, the sweet or savory mooncake comes in as many versions as the phases of the moon.
Beijing-style mooncakes often display meticulous decoration. Suzhou-style versions highlight the crust’s softness and are generally sweeter than most, while Huizhou-style delicacies are small and frequently filled with wild vegetables, lard and sugar.
In southern China, Guangzhou-style mooncakes feature fillings made from local products such as minced pork or sweet pastes. Guests at Conrad Guangzhou, for example, can enjoy the famous mooncakes of Lian Xiang Lou, a 130-year-old tea house where they make their lotus seed paste from fresh lotuses from Hunan province.
Across China and beyond, creative and cosmopolitan mooncakes showcase unconventional flavors and techniques, while the stylish and elaborate packaging adds to the status of both giver and recipient.
Golden Leaf restaurant at Conrad Hong Kong serves traditional mooncakes with white lotus seed paste and salted egg yolk, as well as their new Golden Leaf Luxury Assorted Mini Mooncakes: red bean paste with mandarin peels, purple yam in coconut flavor, charcoal-baked golden sweet potato and black sesame paste.
In Causeway Bay, renowned restaurant Sushi Tsubomi has partnered with Japanese confection specialists to create exquisite wagashi mooncakes filled with milk and white bean or matcha green tea.
Mooncake packages come with dice in Xiamen. This tradition commemorates the custom of mooncake gambling known as bobing during the Qing Dynasty. Guests staying at Conrad Xiamen are likely to catch a round of (perfectly legal) mooncake gambling and hear the clinks of dice against red porcelain bowls.
In the northeastern city of Dalian, homemade mooncakes feature mashed dates and mixed nuts. This year’s menu will also deliver new fruit-flavored fillings.
Historic and beautiful Beijing boasts traditional flavors, such as Cantonese-mixed nuts or egg yolk puff pastry, but there are far more contemporary versions. Think mixed bean and blueberry cheese, mango custard or chocolate. They even serve low-sugar mooncakes for those counting their carbs.
CHOOSING THE BEST STYLE
Exchanging mooncakes between family, friends and business associates during the Mid-Autumn Festival conveys wishes for prosperity. Therefore, it’s important to choose mooncakes from reputable makers, given the significance and seriousness of their symbolism.
Conrad properties feature limited-edition mooncakes in meticulously designed hampers and gift boxes that guests can choose as an eloquent way to express their wishes. At Conrad Beijing, for example, this year’s theme is the lantern. Thus, a reusable box features elegant branding with a lantern image in a hologram style.
Boxes always contain a total of six or eight cakes, because in Chinese culture, the number six symbolizes success while eight symbolizes wealth.
But no matter the style or the spending involved, mooncakes are best enjoyed with a cup of Chinese tea, surrounded by family and friends, as the ancient tradition continues to weave its lunar magic.