It’s autumn already in the rest of the world. We are late to the season business sans summers, which comes galloping towards us every year. While the rest of the seasons take their sweet time in arriving, ambling towards us at a leisurely pace (sigh).
Every year, between mid-September and early October, the Chinese celebrate the mid-autumn festival, also known as the ‘Moon Festival’ or Mooncake Festival All the names are suggestive of what the festival entails. The festival is celebrated on the 5th day of the 8th lunar Chinese month, hence mid-autumn. The Chinese believe the moon to be the brightest and the fullest on this day, so people come together to engage in moon gazing.
I took a particular liking to this festival because of its highlight: the moon cakes! And also because it’s more laid back as far as the excitement levels are concerned. Don’t get me wrong though, it’s a big occasion nonetheless. Analogically speaking, it’s akin to our Big Eid.
According to folklore, an uprising against the Mongol rulers of China was initiated by the Ming revolutionaries by smuggling messages inside moon cakes, resulting in a successful revolt on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. Another method which is believed to have been employed was to print hidden messages on the surface of the moon cakes, which came in packages of four. To read the message, each of the four moon cakes was cut into four equal parts. The resulting 16 pieces were then pieced together like a puzzle to reveal the message. The pieces of the moon cakes were then eaten to destroy the evidence. What a novel technique!
I hope I have aroused your curiosity to the point where you are asking yourselves: what exactly is a moon cake? Moon cakes are round, thick, caramel-colored Chinese pastries with a dense filling. The filling in the center is usually of a single or double salted duck egg yolk. The egg yolks symbolize the full moon. Other conventional fillings are the red bean paste and the lotus seed paste, with the latter being my personal favorite. The cakes have inscriptions on top of them. Because of it’s dense and rich consistency, you can cut one into 6 to 8 wedges and then share them.
My personal hierarchy of needs however dictates that the whole thing should be devoured alone, and that’s exactly what I do each and every time. Except for the inscriptions on top of them, these cakes can appear very unassuming and old fashioned, but are in fact quite heavy on the pocket. Prices range from 25 to 100 Singaporean dollars ($18 to $74), and sometimes even more.
Moon cakes are usually given as gifts to family, friends and work associates. In Singapore, it has become a tradition to present moon cakes in fancy and ornately crafted boxes (which further spikes up the price). Eateries and hotels step up their game ever year to make the containers more and more appealing and elaborate.
Catering to the health conscious consumers of today, less heavy versions have also been developed. One of which is the snow-skin moon cake, which is made of glutinous rice. Typically it’s white in color and is eaten cold; which is where it gets it’s ‘snow skin’ name. It also comes in other soft pastel colors with varied fillings.
I saw cheaper versions of these cakes in Islamabad while visiting a Chinese grocery store. They didn’t seem particularly inviting, especially after having sampled some of the best. Guess a mid-autumn trip to Singapore for me is on the cards..