Mooncakes are typically eaten during the annual Mid-Autumn Festival celebrated among the Chinese. There are many different varieties of mooncakes, and in recent years, the mooncakes have evolved from cakes to jelly, ice cream and chocolate.
History of the Mid-Autumn Festival
With a history boasting 3000 years, the “moon festival” initially began during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), when the emperors would worship and gaze at the moon. This ritual became popular among those of the upper class as well. This originated from the Shang Dynasty’s (1600 – 1046 BC) tradition of moon worshipping to show gratitude for a bountiful harvest.
The word, “mid-autumn” first appeared in the book, Rites of Zhou. During this period, the celebration was not merry and was regarded as a solemn affair. This tradition only became a festival in the Northern Song Dynasty (960 – 79 AD) as the “Mid-Autumn Festival” was established on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. It was at this time that the people dressed up, burnt incense and exchanged gifts of mooncakes which symbolised reunion. The making of mooncakes was considered an art.
Eating mooncakes was a custom which began in the Yuan Dynasty (1279 – 1368) when the Mongols ruled. The mooncakes were used as tools to carry hidden messages for the rebels. During the Ming Dynasty (1364 – 1644 AD) and Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912 AD), the Mid-Autumn Festival became primarily as well-known and widely celebrated as Chinese New Year.
The people celebrated by releasing sky lanterns and watching fire-dragon dances. Now, the festival still maintains its traditions and is a recognised holiday in Malaysia. Family gatherings, playing with lights and consuming mooncakes are some of the common activities that are practised by Chinese families.
Legends and Myths Surrounding the Festival
The Touching Love between Lady Chang’e and Hou Yi
It was said that there used to be 10 suns in the sky but Hou Yi – an archer and member of the Imperial Guard – saved the earth by shooting down the other 9 suns from the peak of Mount Kunlun. As a reward, the Queen of Heaven presented the elixir of life to Hou Yi. He did not take the potion because he was unwilling to leave his wife, Chang’e but gave it to her for safekeeping. She kept the elixir hidden but was seen by one of Hou Yi’s disciples, Peng Meng.
One day when Hou Yi went hunting with his disciples, Peng Meng stayed behind with the excuse of being ill. Shortly after the hunting group left, he broke into Hou Yi’s house and threatened Chang’e to hand over the elixir. In distress, Chang’e took the elixir from where it was hidden and drank its contents. Immediately, she floated up to the sky. It was said that she became immortal and stayed at a nearby moon because she was worried about her husband, Hou Yi. At nightfall, when Hou Yi returned, his maids told him of what had occurred during his absence. Furious, he immediately killed Peng Meng.
Heartbroken, Hou Yi cried out to the sky and was surprised to see the moon so bright and clear. To his surprise, he caught sight of a swaying figure that resembled Chang’e. Hou Yi hastily asked his maids to prepare an incense table in the back garden and made fresh fruits and moon cakes on it. This then became a ceremony in her honour, Chang’e who lived on the moon. When the locals caught wind of the story, they also burnt incense and served offerings for the Goddess Chang’e while praying for safety and happiness.
The Jade Hare on the Moon
Back in the day, there were three immortals disguised as poor, old men. They begged for food from a fox, monkey and hare. The fox and monkey offered food items while the hare had nothing to offer them. Instead, the hare invited the old men to eat its meat and then threw itself into the raging fire.
Deeply moved, the three immortals decided to bring the hare to the palace of the moon and from then on was known as the Jade Hare. The hare keeps Chang’e company, and it mashes herbs for the elixir of life there, day after day.
Types of Mooncakes
Red Bean Paste Mooncake
This mooncake is filled with creamy, thick red bean paste and is sweet. The flavours linger in your mouth, and the aroma of the mooncake delights you with every bite. It is generally enjoyed with a cup of tea to balance its sweetness.
Lotus Paste Seed Mooncake
The lotus originated from the Cantonese, which is popular in China and overseas. The filling is made fresh using lotus seeds that has its unique fragrance. Due to its high price, white kidney bean paste is sometimes used as a substitute, so be sure, to buy one that makes it with authentic lotus seeds.
Salted Egg Yolk Mooncake
The salted egg yolk is usually added in the centre of the mooncake and is generally surrounded by red bean paste or lotus paste. The combination of both sweet and salty makes for a refreshing treat.
Snow Skin Mooncake
These mooncakes are non-baked and originated from Hong Kong and became famous in China. The crust is made from glutinous rice and has a snow-white appearance. Some even add juice to the coat to make it more colourful. The fillings can be sweet and savoury. This mooncake type is typically served chilled.
Green Tea Mooncake
The distinctive feature of this mooncake is its fresh green tea flavour. The filling may be green tea or other ingredients such as lotus paste. This mooncake is usually less greasy compared to the different types.
This mooncake combines both Eastern and Western culture. The mooncake crust is made of chocolate, and the filling is usually chocolate, oats, berries, Oreo or others.
Ice Cream Mooncake
This is definitely a new one that has only been popularised recently. Instead of the usually baked mooncake, these mooncakes taste cooling and refreshing. Thus, this mooncake is popular among the young crowd. The crust is generally made from chocolate, and the fillings can be any ice cream that you like!