Thursday, October 12, 2017

Mid Autumn Festival and Mooncakes

By Asia Pop Culture

Sweet Mooncakes with Spiced Walnuts and Red Bean Fillings


I've been on vacation and totally not realizing that the 2017 Mid-Autumn Festival has come and gone.  Nevertheless, better late than never, I will cover this unique Chinese festival in this post.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the four most important Chinese festivals. In 2017, Mid Autumn Festival (中秋節) falls on Oct. 4, based on Western Gregorian calendar.  But in Chinese Lunar Calendar, and as the name implies, it always falls on August 15, when the moon is full at night.

Almost every Chinese festival has a mystical story behind it.  There are different stories as to how the Mid Autumn Festival started hundreds of years ago.  I will share the version I grew up with, partly adapted from Wikipedia:

In ancient times, people were suffering a great deal because of ten suns shining in the sky every day.  Then came the hero Houyi who shot down nine of the ten suns.  Houyi was pronounced king by the thankful people. However, he soon became a conceited tyrant. In order to be immortal to rule the world forever, he asked for the elixir from the heaven goddess.  But his wife, Chang'e, stole the elixir on the fifteenth of August because she did not want the cruel king to become immortal hurting more people. She took the magic elixir and flew towards the moon to escape her husband. After Chang'e fled to the moon, she became the spirit of the moon. Houyi died soon after because he was overcome with great anger due to the loss of the magic potion and his wife.  Thereafter, people offer a sacrifice to Chang'e on every lunar fifteenth of August to commemorate Chang'e's action.

In Mainland China the festival is listed as  a public holiday since 2008.  I guess that means the old and traditional finally came back en vogue after Mao's Cultural Revolution destroying almost all things traditional.  The festival is also a public holiday in Taiwan and in Hong Kong.

Typically, there is always a special food item associated with each Chinese festival.  We covered Zonzi (粽子) of the Dragon Boat FestivalTangyuan (湯圓) of the Lantern Festival, and without exception, the one special food for the Mid Autumn Festival is Mooncake (月餅).

Mooncakes typically consist of a round thin, tender pastry skin wrapping a sweet, dense filling.  The size is about 10 cm in diameter and 3–4 cm thick in beautifully designed gift boxes.  Due to their rich taste, mooncakes are usually eaten in small wedges accompanied by tea. Today, it is customary for businessmen and families to present a box or two of mooncakes as presents to friends, clients and relatives.

Mooncakes in Gift Boxes
The festival was a time to celebrate a good harvest season with food offerings made in honor of the moon. Many families still hold outdoor reunions among friends and relatives to eat mooncakes and watch the moon, a symbol of harmony and unity.

Due to China's influence, other parts of Asia also celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival with mooncakes and tea.  In addition, mooncakes have also become a well known exotic Chinese delicacy that many Westerners enjoy.  Mooncakes may be found in many Asian supermarkets in the U.S. and other countries.  Give them a try if you have not already done so.   

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