Happy mid-autumn festival, or Zhongquijie in Mandarin! The annual festival, dates back to the Shang dynasty over 3000 years ago, and celebrates autumnal equinox when the moon is at its fullest. While not as popular in the west as the Chinese new year, the festival is known for its customary pastries: mooncakes.
One of my favorite parts about the first year in a new country is experiencing all the holidays and events for the first time. It’s a bit like having your first Christmas but being old enough to remember and appreciate the day. This holiday had the same sense of anticipation and buildup as Halloween or Thanksgiving back home. Stores displayed stacks of mooncakes and the markets were filled with people purchasing ingredients for big family feasts. Our apartment building even had a community party on the Sunday before involving a dice game and sodas…that’s about all we could figure out.
What exactly is a mooncake? I had no idea when I arrived here in China. I’d heard of them, but I couldn’t have described what one looked like. As the holiday approached, Biju and I decided we really should sample a few varieties to figure out what all the fuss was about.
Put simply, mooncakes are a small, dense pastry filled with lotus seed paste and a variety of other fillings. The most traditional type of mooncake houses the yolk of a salted duck egg in the middle of sweet lotus seed paste, with a sugary crust holding everything together. The tiny and super heavy little pastries (you could seriously use them as paper weights) come at a price. The four we purchased from a cheap bakery cost $10, but we’ve heard they can go for over $30 each.
Now, with the exception of mangoes with sticky rice in Thailand, I am not a huge fan of Asian desserts. I’m always finding red beans, corn and sweet potatoes hiding in places where they shouldn’t be, and things that look like they’d taste amazing always seem to lack flavor. Mooncakes, on the other hand, are almost too rich with a heavy, cookie dough texture, and they can still contain some odd ingredients. We purchased the four types that were available individually from our local bakery, without knowing what they might contain. Sampling them was a bit like eating from a box of chocolates…you know the ending.
The first type we tried contained the yolk of a salted duck egg. The contrast between the sweetened lotus seed paste and the ultra-salted yolk was a bit odd, but I could understand the appeal.
Our second mooncake was a bit harder to identify, but I’m pretty sure it contained jujube, or date, paste. This cake had a tangy, fruity flavor to pleasantly contrast the sweetness of the crust and lotus seed paste. The bright purple filling makes this cake the most visually appealing out of the bunch.
The third mooncake, another classic variety, contained a mix of chopped nuts and seeds. This was Biju’s favorite, and tied for first with the jujube in my opinion. With a steaming cup of coffee, I’d eat a slice of this one any day.
The final variety contained solid green tea flavored lotus seed paste. Surprise, surprise! If you’ve ever been to China, you’ll know that everything here comes in green tea flavor. Green tea eggs, green tea duck, green tea ice cream. I like green tea, but I’m not a huge fan of green tea flavored things…it always just seems off to me. This cake was no exception. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t something I’ll ever feel the need to eat again.