Autumn marks the return of a Chinese tradition, mooncakes. This mid-autumn festival or Zhongqui is a festival for celebrating the moon, lunar worship, and moon watching. I am not sure if it includes mooning, whether from your car, or in your school bus on the way to school. Generally, mooncakes are traded among family and friends. I think maybe you have to be Chinese to do this, since I have only received a few in my lifetime.
Typical mooncakes are round mounds or rectangular about 10cm wide and 5 cm thick, or about the size of an American doughnut. But the treasure is the thick and tasty filling made from sweetened red beans or lotus seed paste. Some even contain egg yolks from salted duck eggs (yuck!). That must be some kind of fertility message?
I am told the proper way to eat the mooncake is to cut it into wedges, and sip some hot tea along with it. Sounds very civilized. Even Chinese businessmen present them as gifts to other businessmen. But beware, as the calorie content hovers around an astounding 1000 calories!
Personally, I enjoy a plain mooncake, with just the thin pastry crust, and a modest filling of sweet bean paste. But another key “ingredient” of the mooncake is the imprint on top, usually Chinese characters for “longevity” or “harmony.”
Production is quite labor intensive, with most mooncakes produced commercially. But they are not cheap, with a box of four costing anywhere from $10 to $50!!! So, in my opinion, if you receive one or some, consider yourself lucky.
The ancient Chinese custom (Song dynasty) that brought mooncakes to us comes from the mythical Chinese Moon Goddess of Immortality. Of course, you knew this, being great historians of Chinese culture. The fifteenth day of the 8th lunar month is the day called “Mid-Autumn.” That night is called “Night of the Moon.”
I will spare you a dissertation about styles, whether crusts, fillings, or regional differences. Suffice it to say that I like the Hong Kong style best. Why? Because the mooncake is filled with ice cream! The weirdest ones are filled with the salted duck egg yolk, seaweed, mushrooms, or figs. Actually, I just made up the fig filling. The Hawaiian version filled with sweet taro paste and pineapple is actually pretty good. I hear the mooncake filled with tiramisu is getting popular with the Chuppies (Chinese yuppies).
Several Asian countries make their own version of mooncakes. In Thailand, the filling is the stinky but mighty durian, often called the “King of Fruits.” In Japan, I have had their version filled with sweet red (azuki) beans. The Philippines fill theirs with mung beans. A Vietnamese version is filled with shark fin.
Locally, I would head to Chinatown in Oakland or San Francisco to find them. Chow hound recommends Mongkok Dim Sum on Noriega in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset: a moist filling in fresh, thin pastry shells.