In a few weeks from now, we are having yet another great excuse to indulge our sweet tooth. Strike that – we are having another great opportunity to expand our multi-cultural sensibility: the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. At the heart of this centuries-old tradition is the tasting of mooncakes. If you have tried them before and just want to know more about them, or you are looking for some guidance with purchases, this article is for you!
How Did the Mooncake Come to Be?
The Chinese pronunciation of mooncake is “Yue Bing”. Yue means moon of course; but Bing is much harder to translate. In traditional Chinese, Bing usually indicates some kind of wheat pastry. For example, “Tang Bing” means pieces of dough boiled in water, such as noodles. “Chui Bing” means steamed bread. “Shao Bing” means toasted bread. Last but not least, “Hu Bing” is baked bread – the predecessor of mooncake.
Believe or not, baking has never been a native Chinese cooking method. It actually came from central Asia. The ancient Chinese referred to baked bread as “Hu Bing” because anything originated from west of China was prefixed with the word “Hu”, such as “Hu Gua” (cucumber), “Hu Dou” (fava beans), and “Hu Jiao” (pepper corn). Thus, “Hu Bing” originated from Central Asia as well. Later, various nuts spread to China and were added to the day-to-day diet, and pretty soon the confectioners began using nuts and sugar as filling for the baked “Hu Bing”.
But it took many centuries for the stuffed Hu Bing to be associated with the moon and the Mid-Autumn Festival.
What Is Mid-Autumn Festival?
Before the modern ages, annual moon worship used to be a common practice in Chinese households. On the forty-fifth day of every Autumn, the day when the moon is the fullest and brightest, each family would set up an offering table with some food for the moon god. They prayed to the moon god and asked for blessing, and believed that after the prayer the god would consume the food. Then, the family shared the offering, and in doing so the blessing is received.
Eventually, the Mid-Autumn moon worship ceremony evolved into an occasion for family gathering, and the stuffed Hu Bing used as offering became a seasonal delicacy. As it became more and more dedicated to the Mid-Autumn Festival, its name became “Yue Bing” to signify the connection.
When I was a child, my family observed the Mid-Autumn Festival too. We would cook a (relatively) lavish dinner, sit in the backyard to enjoy the cool breeze and the view of full moon, before sharing some mooncakes with a pot of green tea. We didn’t care about worshiping the moon or receiving blessings – it’s all about dinner, family, and mooncakes.
Types of Mooncake
So, what exactly are mooncakes? There are quite a few types of them, but in general it’s the same idea: a baked pastry stuffed with firm fillings, usually sweet. In recent years the diverse mooncake scene in China has consolidated into two major styles. First, you have the Cantonese style with a soft, embossed shell, and the filling makes up the bulk of the cake. Then, less common than the Cantonese style here in the US, you have the crispy “Su” style which is thinner and the layered wrapper is similar to the Strudel. Just as FYI, there are also two other styles of mooncakes, but they have already declined in popularity due to less desirable presentation and taste. So all this being said, here in the US we typically will only see Cantonese style mooncakes in the Chinese supermarkets.
For Cantonese mooncakes, the filling may contain sesame seeds, nuts, lotus seeds, melon pulp, red bean paste, or even ham. I will now go over the taste and composition of some popular flavors. Also, if you are interested in how mooncakes are made, here’s a great article from Omnivore’s Cookbook.
This is probably the most debated flavor in China right now, with some people absolutely hate it while others swear by it. Some even believe in a conspiracy theory that the mooncake manufacturers stirred up the controversy to make people despise this flavor. The name “five nuts” refers to the filling which includes five different kinds of nuts, bound together by either sugar or wax melon paste. To complement the nuts, candied orange peels are often added for the citrusy taste. Depending on the manufacturer, it may taste smooth and nutty or jaw-busting hard.
Either way, the truth is that the only way to make a tasty Five-Nuts mooncake is high quality ingredients, namely the nuts. The current official definition of “five nuts” is a mix of sesame seeds, olive kernel, apricot kernel, watermelon kernel, and walnuts. It doesn’t say peanuts, almonds, or pecan. You should always read the ingredient list when shopping for mooncakes to make sure it follows the standard.
The apricot kernel can be a bit confusing. Chinese products tend to call it “almond” in the ingredients, which is incorrect. Almond is large and meaty, while apricot kernel is small and thin. When in doubt, just check with the supermarket staff.
Lotus Seed Paste
Chinese cuisine utilizes many parts of a lotus plant. The root makes great soup and stew. The leaves can wrap around meats and give off a special fragrance during roasting or braising. The seed can be added to soup, congee, and dessert. Or, you can ground the seeds to a fine paste, add oil and sugar, and after hours of tedious simmering and stirring use it as a filling for mooncake.
The lotus seed filling tastes soft, velvety, and sweet with a slight bean-y flavor. There’s a more exquisite version that adds one or two salted whole egg yokes to each mooncake. The salted egg yoke comes from brined raw duck eggs, a process which separates fat from the protein inside the egg yokes with salt, giving the yoke a rich, oily, firm taste without becoming too salty.
Red Bean Paste
Also called “red mung bean”, the Adzuki bean looks just like a green mung bean in red color. Similar to lotus seeds, the Adzuki beans may go through a series of boiling, sieving, and simmering to become fillings for mooncake. I used to watch my dad making red bean paste at home, not for mooncakes but for steamed buns. The final step was the most tedious: he took cooked, mashed Adzuki beans in the form of a thin mash, put it in a wok over low heat, and constantly stirred it to prevent sticking and burning. After a couple of hours of hard work – sometimes I helped out too – the thin mash would thicken into a paste thick enough to form into balls. The red bean paste is very versatile and goes well with many types of pastries, but just too heavy for my own preference.
The Chinese jujube dates grow on deciduous trees rather than palm trees. The fruit has crispy, sweet flesh surrounding a spindle-shaped pit, and once dried, it taste pretty similar to dried palm dates. Chinese people use jujube dates for many purposes like tea, soup, rice cake, and even herbal medicine. If you process the sun-dried flesh the same way as the red beans, it makes very delicious mooncake filling. It tastes similar to dried figs, like the fig newtons, sweet, fruity, and a little tangy.
“New School” Flavored Mooncakes
Sometimes you’ll find those “fruit flavor” mooncakes in the supermarket next to the traditional kinds. Don’t be fooled – they are most likely not real fruits, but artificially flavored wax melon. I’m not saying that it doesn’t taste good – in fact I really enjoy some of these flavors for a change – just keep in mind that if the supermarket jacks up the price, then it doesn’t really worth the money.
These flavors may include strawberry, pineapple, green tea, honeydew melon, mango, orange, peach, lemon… All of them are made of wax melons.
This new fad emerged from the last few decades is quite sensational: the shell is made of steamed rice flour, which has a smooth, semi-transparent appearance. These mooncakes don’t go through the baking process therefore must be frozen for storage. Occasionally you may find these in the freezers of Chinese supermarkets, usually for twice the price as regular mooncakes.
Shopping For Mooncakes
Once you go to the supermarket you’ll quickly realize that the mooncakes ain’t cheap. In fact, it has always been a luxury food throughout history which an ordinary family can only enjoy once a year. It has to do with the cost of ingredients and the amount of manual labor required. Even today with cheaper ingredients and automated production, they are still expensive due to being a seasonal item. Bakeries can only manufacture mooncakes once a year since nobody would buy them at other times, so they would raise the price to protect their investment.
So, for Cantonese style mooncakes, which are the majority you can find today, it’s reasonable to assume $3 to $6 each depending on filling type and size. For a whole box, it may range from $15 to $40. Generally speaking, in terms of cost, crystal mooncake > egg yoke mooncake > five nuts > lotus seed > jujube dates > red bean paste.
Unfortunately with so many competing brands and random inventory every year, it’s difficult to find and stick to one brand you like. So your best bet is to read the ingredient list. You want to stay away from fillers like beans, melons, and peanuts. Also, as stated earlier, those fancy-sounding fruit mooncakes don’t actually contain fruits. You should also pay attention to the “sharpness” of the embossment, and of course, the production date. Some Chinese products aren’t labeled with expiration date, but rather the date they are produced. While mooncakes do last quite a while inside packaging, obviously you don’t want to buy last year’s products.
Once you bring the mooncake home, just leave it out in room temperature, and finish it within a week. Cantonese style mooncakes are meant to be sliced like a pie, so don’t just grab one and start chomping on it!