Next week is the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is to say the second most important Chinese festival (Spring Festival aka Chinese New Year being the first). It always falls on the 15th night of the 8th lunar month in the Chinese calendar, and that means that this year it is on 22nd September. Everyone goes home to eat and relax with their families (they are meant to watch the moon rising), and most importantly everyone eats Mooncakes (Yuebing).
Now I knew all this, but the reality of it hadn’t really sunk in until I went to a large supermarket the other day and found the aisles lined with towering piles of boxes of Mooncakes – every possible variety and price. God forbid there were to be an earthquake – one would have been crushed to death under the huge heap of Mooncake boxes. And then, when I got to the check-out, just in case it had slipped my mind and I’d forgotten to buy any, there were even higher towers of the things.
Every local baker produces a range of Mooncakes, the big swanky hotels (Ritz Carlton, Peninsular, Shangri-La, St Regis, Hilton etc.) produce their own ranges of Mooncakes, big commercial companies produce them, small backstreet shops produce them, – hells bells even Haagen Däz produces them, not to mention Starbucks.
There are 1.3 billion people in China (not counting us outsiders) and they all eat and give away Mooncakes – some may eat more than one.
What is a Mooncake you may ask. It is a small – usually round – cake, approximately 10cm in diameter and 4/5cms high. It is composed of a pastry ‘skin’ containing a filling, the traditional filling is lotus bean paste or a sweet red bean paste with a salty duck egg yolk (representing the full moon) in the centre. The cakes are very rich and dense and are usually cut into four pieces and eaten with tea. Modern mooncakes, and those from other regions of China or the Chinese diaspora may have other fillings which can range from roast pork, sharks fin, taro paste or durian (see my blog about this fruit) to coconut, mixed nuts, chocolate, tiramisu…. the list of possible fillings these days seems endless.
Mooncakes seem to have two types of pastry ‘skin’, Suzhou style which is a light flaky pastry, or as they do in Beijing, a shortcrust pastry. They are made by cutting a circle of pastry, putting a couple of teaspoons of the filling in the centre, folding the pastry over and sealing it to enclose the filling and then pressing the whole package into a Mooncake mould which will shape it and give it the characteristic elaborate patterned top which is then glazed with egg yolk and baked.
Once baked they are packed, usually into boxes of four or eight, and the packaging is fancy to say the least. Fabulous individual boxes nestling in a satin-lined outer box or tin on which no expense has been spared. A box of four mooncakes can range in price from80 kuai to 729 kuai which is to say £8.00 to £72.90. I kid you not.
Businessmen buy the expensive boxes to give away as gifts to other businessmen or to government officials, parents present them to their children’s teachers, bosses give them to their employees, employees give them to their bosses…the whole country goes mooncake mad.