Chinese New Year is celebrated globally, with many people appreciating its significance and recognising traditions and customs related to the festivities, such as the thousands of red lanterns, fiery dragon dances and iconic animal zodiac signs. In contrast, little is known in the West about China’s other festivals, of which there are many.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is debatably one of the most important festivals in the Chinese calendar. The harvest festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese Han calendar, usually falling somewhere between September and October on the night of the full moon. The ancient Chinese recognised that the movement of the moon related to the changes of the seasons. Therefore, an important aspect of the Mid-Autumn Festival is moon worship – it is said that the moon is the brightest and fullest on this day – and although in many places people no longer make food offerings to the moon, traditions involving outdoor reunions among friends and family to watch the moon and the burning of incense in reverence to deities are still prevalent across the country.
There are many different legends and folk stories that coincide with the Mid-Autumn Festival and which go some way in explaining the customs associated with it, most notably that of Chang’e and Hou Yin, fated lovers who were parted when Chang’e swallowed elixir given to her by the queen of heaven which sent her to the moon, destined to forever look down upon her lover and the rest of the world.
During the Mid-Autumn Festival the Chinese also tell the story of the jade rabbit, a legend intricately linked to that of Chang’e. The story starts with three immortals who returned to earth reincarnated as poverty-stricken old people. They begged for food from a fox, a rabbit and a monkey. While the fox and the monkey both gave food to the immortals, the rabbit didn’t have any to give. Instead, the rabbit said to the immortals “you can eat me!” and jumped into the fire. The immortals were so moved by the rabbit’s actions that they sent him to the moon to become an immortal jade rabbit, and there the rabbit lives in the Moon Palace with Chang’e pounding immortal medicine for those living in heaven.
Moon cakes 月饼
As with most Chinese festivals, the Mid-Autumn Festival has its own dedicated food: the moon cake.
Moon cakes, or the cakes that inspired the modern moon cake that is recognisable now, originated thousands of years ago in the Shang (17th century BC – 1046 BC) and Zhou (1046-256 BC) dynasties: a biscuit thick at the centre and thin at the edges was likely the first recorded ancestor of the mooncake, and it was created in the Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. During the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), sesame and walnuts were first introduced into China, and consequentially into these round cakes. However, it was in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) that the name ‘moon cake’ was first used nationwide, and it was not until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) that the tradition of eating these cakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival formed.
Moon cakes are enjoyed and given as gifts throughout China during the festival. They are always round; symbolism is extremely important in Chinese culture, and the moon cake’s shape symbolises reunion and togetherness. The outer filling is pastry, and the top is often delicately decorated with patterns. Moon cakes are filled with sweet or savoury pastes, often red bean or lotus seed, and occasionally a salted egg yolk; the egg yolk represents the full moon.
As there are so many different types of moon cakes in China, it is possible to classify them based on their various locations; mooncakes from Guangdong (or Canton), Suzhou, Beijing and Yunnan are perhaps the most well-known.
Cantonese-style mooncakes from Guangdong have a thin crust and a rich filling, often utilising ingredients that are local such as coconut, olive seeds, orange cakes, Guangdong sausage and roasted pork, salted eggs and sweetened animal fats. Suzhou-style mooncakes are often sweeter, and the closest to the thousand-year-old recipe they originated from. Beijing-style mooncakes include lots of sesame oil, which make them crisp on the outside. Yunnan-style mooncakes have a softer crust, and the fillings are neither salty nor sweet.
MOON CAKES AT YAUATCHA
The chefs at Yauatcha have created a modern interpretation of the classic Chinese moon cake to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival: it is sweet and filled with a thick and unctuous Chinese-style custard.