Meet the Mooncake – Traditional treats for Chinese Mid-Autumn Day

Thursday the 1st of October is Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节 Zhōngqiū jié) in China! To celebrate the festival, families get together and enjoy eating mooncakes (月饼 yuèbǐng) and drinking tea… and they may even get to gaze at the full moon if the skies are clear enough! 

But where does the tradition of mooncakes come from? And what are some of the most common flavours you can enjoy over the holidays? Read on to find out more!

This year, the Mid-Autumn Day falls on October 1st, which is the 15th day of the 8th month in the lunar calendar. Why that date?  On that day in legend, a great love story happened… the story of Chang’E and Hou Yi.  At that time, the world was scorched by ten suns.  Hou Yi was an archer and he saved the world by shooting down nine of the suns, leaving just the one we still have today.  As a reward, the Queen Mother of the West gave him an immortality potion.  

Hou Yi didn’t take it immediately, however, and his apprentice Feng Meng broke into his home to try and steal it.  Hou Yi’s wife, Chang’E was at home at the time, and to stop Feng Meng stealing the potion she drank it herself and, becoming immortal, was transported into the sky.  

In order to stay as close as possible to Hou Yi, Chang’E decided to live on the moon.  Every year on the anniversary of these events, heartbroken Hou Yi would lay out Chang’E’s favourite treats and cakes and look up at the moon, missing his wife.  

Despite the link to cakes in the legend, eating mooncakes on the Mid-Autumn Festival didn’t become common until the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).  Now they are closely connected with the holiday and can be found everywhere from late August onwards.  

There are many different types of mooncake, with both different pastry crusts and different fillings.  The name of the bakery and the filling is often baked into the top of the crust using a mould, and surrounded by decorative patterns.  And you can now find mochi-style mooncakes, ice mooncakes and ice cream mooncakes in larger cities!

The CK team got together for some tea and mooncakes… Here’s our guide to some of the most common flavours of mooncake available in Beijing!

八宝果仁 (Bā bǎo guǒ rén)Eight Treasures

These mooncakes contain eight different nuts, seeds and fruits, including sunflower seeds, two types of melon seeds, peanuts, black and white sesame seeds, wolfberry and candied orange peel – all suspended in a sweet bean paste. The ingredients may vary slightly depending on the bakery.

豆沙   (Dòushā)   Bean Paste

Filled with straight up red bean paste these are classic mooncakes that you can buy everywhere.

蛋黄   (Dànhuáng)   Egg Yolk

If you’re new to mooncakes – and especially if you can’t read Chinese – beware the surprise salty egg yolk at the centre of these mooncakes!  The golden yolk symbolises both the moon and, since the circle is a symbol of unity to the Chinese, the coming together of families to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.  The mooncake is usually filled out with lotus paste (expensive) or white kidney bean paste (most cheaper mooncakes).

果肉   (Guǒròu)   Fruit

These mooncakes come in different varieties – for example pineapple flavour (pineapple is often called 凤梨  fènglí rather than 菠萝  bōluó when used in mooncakes) or cantaloupe flavour (哈密瓜  hāmìguā).  They will almost certainly also contain bean paste and some type of nuts or seeds though.

五仁  (Wǔ rén) Five nuts

One of the most popular and common types of mooncake, the five nuts may include melon seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, coconut, sesame seeds, apricot kernels and pine nuts, and there may be candied fruit and raisins too.

椰蓉  (Yēróng)Coconut

This is an example of the newer flavours of mooncake now being produced.  Filled with dried coconut suspended in bean paste (the more expensive the cake the less paste will be in it!), these mooncakes have a summery, tropical taste!

And that concludes our roundup of the most common mooncakes you can enjoy in Beijing over this holiday week. Reading this after the holiday? No need to worry! Supermarkets in China always have a lot of mooncakes in stock at this time of year, so you’ll be able to try all the listed flavours for a while after the holiday!

Please note: If you’re vegetarian, please check the ingredients of mooncakes carefully before you buy, as many contain meat products.  Unfortunately, almost all commercially-produced mooncakes also contain dairy products so will not be suitable for vegans.

Will you be celebrating Mid-Autumn Day this year? What do you have planned? Have you tried mooncakes before? Which is your favourite? Let us know in the comments below!

Photo Credits
– Cultural Keys

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