Mid-Autumn Festival, which occurs on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, is a time for families to gather and appreciate the full harvest moon with dragon dances, lantern lighting, and gift exchanging. Mooncake is an essential part of the festival, so much so that the festival is colloquially known as the Mooncake Festival.
During the entire autumn season, there are large family gatherings where mooncake is a culinary necessity, and shops all over Hong Kong sell mooncakes with their own styles, recipes, and branding. The roundness of mooncakes, which resemble the full moon at the peak of the harvesting season, symbolize unity and completeness, an important concept in Chinese culture.
The symbolic significance of mooncakes
There are a few folktales surrounding the origin and cultural significance of mooncakes. These include a story about Ming revolutionaries using mooncakes to disseminate their messages in order to overthrow their Mongol rulers in the mid-fourteenth century. The most commonly told story surrounding mooncakes is the one about the moon goddess Chang’e that originated in the book of Huainanzi (淮南子) during the Han dynasty.
The Chinese legend describes how the Earth originally had ten suns that would cross the sky one by one. However, one day all ten suns appeared at once, causing a severe drought. Chang’e’s husband, Hou Yi (后羿), shot down nine suns with his bow to end the drought. For his heroic actions, he was elected to be king.
Here, there are variations in the story. One variation says that Hou Yi found a potion to achieve eternal life. Chang’e wished to end his rule and drank the immortality elixir herself, escaping to the moon for refuge. In a karmic punishment for her selfishness, she was transformed into a frog.
The other version describes how the Queen of Heaven gave Hou Yi the immortality potion as a reward for saving humanity from starvation. The new king didn’t want to leave his wife, and gave her the potion for safekeeping. A greedy man named Fengmeng tried to take the potion from Chang’e, and knowing she couldn’t successfully fight him, she swallowed the potion and flew to the moon. When Hou Yi discovered his wife was gone, he was devastated and prepared her favourite cakes as offerings in an attempt to bring her back. Unsuccessful, he prepared a banquet every year on that day, the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month.
Ever since then, Chinese people have observed this festival day to honour Chang’e, the spirit of the moon, and reunite with their family where the mythological husband and wife couldn’t.
How are mooncakes made?
The traditional mooncake crust is made with flour, sugar syrup, oil, and alkaline water to prevent cracks. For the filling, white or yellow lotus seed paste or red bean paste surrounds an entire preserved egg yolk and occasionally contains seeds and other seasoning, as well.
First, an entire salted egg yolk is moulded by hand into the middle of a ball of dense filling. The roundness of the egg yolk should be carefully maintained at this stage. Then, the ball is wrapped into a round of thin pastry. The ball is then stamped into the ubiquitous uniform mooncake shape by a wood or plastic mould.
The pastry to filling ratio should be approximately 1:2, and the pastry can be made even thinner without breaking at the shaping stage if done by an experienced chef.
Mooncakes traditionally have Chinese blessing words like “harmony” and “longevity” stamped on the tops as a wish for peace and long life. They are also sometimes stamped with the name of the bakery they came from, or business names when gifted as corporate presents. Other moon-related symbols like rabbits (the loyal companion of the moon goddess is a rabbit) and flowers appear on the crowing decoration.
Stored at room or cooler temperatures, mooncakes can typically last for one to two weeks depending on their ingredients. Fillings made of exclusively lotus seed paste and egg yolk can be kept for longer than perishable ingredients like butter.
Different styles of mooncakes
Today, mooncakes come in many modern variations in filling and crust ingredients and flavours. However, the stamps on top still usually carry the motifs of the classic moon legend. There are also regional variations mooncakes throughout China and other parts of Asia. The following are variants on the traditional lotus seed paste and salty egg yolk mooncake seen in Hong Kong.
Snow skin mooncake is a cool, light, dessert-style mooncake. The skin is made with sugar and glutinous rice flour, and sweet red or green bean paste filling is accompanied by fruit, black sesame, chocolate, or edible bird’s nest.
The more fulfilling, decadent lava egg custard mooncake is made with a pastry of flour, butter, egg, and icing sugar. The creamy custard filling is made with a variety of milk and milk substitutes, custard powder, butter, sugar, and salted egg yolk.
Jelly mooncake is a bouncy, usually colourful mooncake with an outer layer made from fruit, coconut milk, water, sugar, and agar powder. The inside is filled with more fruits that imitate the traditional globular egg yolk centre. Still other creative “crystal” mooncakes are made with osthmanthus or longan jellies and filled with drief fruits or flowers.
Mixed nuts mooncake is a traditional mooncake originating from Guangdong, eaten more as a snack or part of a meal, that can contain ham, seeds, nuts, dried fruit, and dried scallops.
Where to buy special mooncakes in Hong Kong?
You can buy mooncakes from bakeries and hotels all over the city at every pricepoint. Hotels and big restaurants release special edition mooncakes every year, and there are some early bird discounts on right now.
Dim Sum Bar, Mini Egg Custard Mooncake
Dim Sum Bar’s executive chef Koo Yim Lung presents their exclusive mini egg custard mooncakes in a box of 6 for $268. This is a classic done well, with subtly sweet, creamy egg custard made from quality ingredients wrapped in buttery pastry shells.
- Get buy-3-get-1-free vouchers (with a complimentary $50 dining voucher) at Dim Sum Bar’s Tsim Sha Tsui and Tsuen Wan locations
- Offer available from 3 August to 5 September 2021; redeem from 9 to 19 September 2021
Dang Wen Li by Dominique Ansel, Mooncake Gift Set
Dominique Ansel’s Hong Kong flagship bakery is selling a “Fly Me to New York” gift box ($498) inspired by the birthplace of the chef’s original bakery. The box features two flavours of mooncakes: earl grey custard and classic egg custard.
- Order vouchers online or get them in-store to enjoy the early bird price of $458
- Offer available from 22 July to 15 August 2021; redeem from 16 August to 24 September 2021
Green Common, Vegan Mooncakes
Green Common is selling two vegan mooncake gift sets featuring the newly introduced vegan custard mooncake crafted from Miyoko’s vegan butter ($308), along with crowd favourites ‘figs with pistachio & oat mooncake’ and ‘mixed nuts, blueberries & purple sweet potato mooncake’ ($328). The company’s sustainable ethos carries over into their packaging, with the compostable box and mooncake trays being made from sugarcane pulp.
- Preorder online to get the early bird prices
- Offer available from 20 July to 29 August 2021; redeem from 28 August to 21 September 2021
Shangri-La, Mooncake Collector’s Box
To celebrate Shangri-La’s 50th anniversary, the group presents a collector’s box of 50-year aged mandarin peel, rose, and red bean paste mooncakes ($1,208) along with new mini tea-flavoured custard mooncakes ($488). Also available online are the bestselling seven-star mooncakes ($1,028) with subtle flavours like white lotus seed paste with pine nuts and red bean paste with dried tangerine peel.
SEXY CRAB x Baekmidang Extravagant Mooncake Gift Set
SEXY CRAB has partnered with Korean dessert atelier Baekmidang to present gift sets pairing the former’s ‘drunken’ seafood marinated in aged Huadiao wine with the latter’s mooncake set in three flavours: lava custard, lava coffee, and Tieguanyin tea. The “Deluxe Opulent” set includes four seafood jars, 6 mooncakes, and a bottle of Delamotte Brut, NV, Champagne ($3,840). The “Extravagant Mooncake” set includes the crab roe and king crab jars, 6 mooncakes, and a bottle of Zardetto “Z” Extra Dry Prosecco ($1,982).
- Get discount vouchers (for the reduced prices of $2,688 and $1,388 respectively) at the SEXY CRAB restaurant (Shop 401A, K11 Musea, 18 Salisbury Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui) and Baekmidang locations (K11 MUSEA, The Peak Galleria, and Windsor House, Causeway Bay)
- Available until 15 August; redeem from 29 August to 21 September 2021
Phoebe’s Kitchen, Mooncake Wellington
Student-turned-chef Phoebe Chan introduces Mooncake Wellington, which emulates classic Beef Wellington ingredients like beef tenderloin, parma ham, and mushroom paste, wrapped in a traditional Chinese mooncake pastry and with the ubiquitous crowning Chinese character. Delicately brush the top with egg yolk and bake to your desired doneness level for a meal of mooncake.
- Order online for delivery or pick-up in Wong Chuk Hang, box of 2 for $238
Header image credits: MariexMartin via Pixabay