Yesterday, Chinese people celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节), one of my favorite holidays in China. I must admit that it’s one of my favorites because of the pastry eaten around this holiday – moon cakes (月饼). I honestly love them and their sight and taste brings back memories from when I first arrived in China (September 2014). But I’ll get back to them in a moment.
The Mid-Autumn Festival marks the middle of Autumn (duh). The key is that it’s Autumn in the sense Chinese calendar (lunar calendar), which is based on the monthly cycles of the Moon’s phases. For instance, according to the Chinese calendar, this year Autumn started on the 7th of August (the first day is called立秋) and will end on the 23th of October (the day is called 霜降 – Frost’s Descent).
Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the four biggest holidays in the Chinese traditional calendar (next to Chinese New Year – 春节, Tomb Sweeping Day – 清明节 and Dragon Boat Festival 端午节). The day itself is off from work for most people and the usual activities include gathering with one’s family, having a meal together, praying in a temple etc.
One of the customs that the Chinese people have is to go out in the evening and admire the full moon (赏月). It’s very popular to go out in groups to watch and take photographs of the moon together. In Nanjing, the popular places to go see the moon are Xuanwu Lake (玄武湖), Confucius Temple (夫子庙), Nanjing Eye Footbridge (南京眼步行桥).
Another of the modern customs is to gift and eat moon cakes. Before the holiday, Chinese companies will give their staff moon cakes packaged in beautifully decorated gift boxes. People will also give mooncakes as a gift to their family members.
Moon cake is a small, typically round pastry (they can also be square or have completely innovative shapes), it can have a crispy skin (this is Suzhou style moon cake 苏式月饼) or thicker, soft skin (Guangzhou style – 广式月饼). Moon cakes are usually baked in an oven, but can also be steamed. Mooncakes have different filings, and the most popular are:
五仁月饼 – five kernels/mixed nuts mooncake; the five kernels usually are walnuts, peanuts, pine nuts, sesame, pumpkin seeds etc. This is certainly my favorite type of filling, but I noticed that not many of my Chinese friends like it – they either think it’s too sweet, or too ordinary – since it’s a very traditional filling, many people ate it for many years when they were children, and now they crave something more original.
豆沙月饼 – a mooncake with a filling made of red bean paste. Personally, I think it’s alright. Red paste is a very common ingredient in Chinese sweets. I’ve also seen a variety of a mooncake that had rose petals mixed together with the red bean paste.
莲蓉月饼 – a mooncake with lotus seed paste inside.
枣泥月饼 – a mooncake with jujube paste; this year I tried a mooncake that had jujube paste mixed together with walnuts, it was very tasty.
鲜肉月饼 – a mooncake with meat, apparently very common in Jiangsu and Zhejiang. This year I tried a beef mooncake – it was also tasty (can you see that I really like mooncakes?)
Now, the mooncakes that have some paste in them will often also have an egg yolk – a salted duck egg yolk. This is considered a delicacy and from what I’ve noticed, my friends prefer mooncakes with egg yolks in them. I don’t mind the sweet and salty combination and I can have one of those, but I must say that I don’t particularly like those mooncakes.
Here are the mooncakes I got from a friend (these are steamed mooncakes):
Mooncakes in supermarkets: