The Moon Festival is celebrated across Eastern Asia, though the most well-known celebration, at least in the Western world, seems to be that of the Chinese.
The Moon Festival falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month on the Chinese calendar, causing it to generally fall in September or October in the Gregorian system. This festival, which is often compared to the Western tradition of Thanksgiving, is a celebration of the harvest and the moon’s association with fertility and femininity. This article is dedicated to one of the most ubiquitous elements of the Moon Festival: the moon cake.
History of the Moon Cake
The moon cake has a very special place in the Moon Festival. It is produced and consumed widely throughout Eastern Asia, in countries such as Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore, and of course, China.
One of the most popular stories surrounding the history of the moon cakes details how these pastries may have played a definitive role in a Chinese revolution. In roughly 1280 CE, the Mongols invaded China. The then-ruling Song Dynasty was overthrown by the Mongols and the Yuan Dynasty was established by the invaders. The Chinese were determined to respond to this encroachment and take back their country.
According to Chinese legend, the Mongolians did not eat moon cakes, so it was decided that the Chinese would use these cakes as a means of communicating a revolutionary call to arms. Pieces of paper were placed inside the cakes, detailing the date upon which the Chinese would attempt to reclaim their country. The event was to take place after the family celebration of the Moon Festival, on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month.
Composition of the Cakes
In general, the cakes come in two sizes: the standard-size and the mini version. The standard-size cakes are roughly three inches wide and an inch thick, whereas the mini-cakes are about two inches wide and an inch thick.
On the outside, the cakes have a thin, moist crust. On the inside, they are as unique as the individuals who create them. Often, they are filled sweet bean paste or lotus seed paste, which is sometimes substituted with vegetables, ham, or fruit. In China, a steamed and salted duck egg is a popular filling; this is because when the cakes are cut into quarters, as is the custom, the egg yolk gives the appearance of a round, full moon.
On top, the cake is customarily stamped with a moon, a woman in a moon, or even a rabbit. These designs reflect the popular associations with the Moon Festival, including the concepts of fertility and femininity, and harken back to popular Chinese folk tales. If the cakes are not designed this way, they may also be stamped with the particular insignia of the bakery from which they originated.
Although many recipes are strictly guarded and have been passed down through the generations, there are a number of recipes available that have been widely published on the internet. This gives everyone the flexibility to purchase from the experts or try a batch at home.
Popularity of Moon Cakes
The popularity and availability of moon cakes has been steadily growing over the years. Once considered a delicacy, they are quickly becoming more widespread and are often given as gifts during the festival. To meet the increasing demand, many bakeries in the United States and abroad spend weeks preparing enough cakes for the festival. That said, be sure to stock up early and try a wide variety of cakes, before they are all gone!