Mooncake Festival

Thoughts in the Silent Night 静夜思 by Li Bai (李白)
The moonlight is shining through the window (床 前 明 月 光)
And it makes me wonder if it is the frost on the ground (疑 是 地 上 霜)
Looking up to see the moon ... (举 头 望 明 月)
Looking down I miss so much about my hometown (低 头 思 故 乡).

Moon cakes, or yue bin in Mandarin, or the bánh trung thu in Vietnam, are round shaped, a strong symbol of family reunion in East Asian heritage. This pastry has a wheat flour or glutinous rice flour outer skin but what counts as important is the nature, taste and texture of the ingredients inside. They are very rich food high in cholesterol and hence eaten sparingly only once a year. The best mooncakes are home made, like made by my sister-in-law Sian Kin, back on Penang Island, but there has been excessive commercialisation of mooncakes in today's society, urged on by the business practice of gifting mooncakes to key clients and also by the ages old practice of providing mooncakes to those you respect and care for in your private live.

My top preference is not for the usual combinations of jujube or lotus pastes and sesame seeds for the ingredients, but those composed of a  mixture of appetising nuts and seeds, with a small portion of salted duck egg yolk. (Photo above)  The favoured five kernels that go into such a moon cake filling are almonds, watermelon seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and peanuts. They are accompanied by small bits of Jinhua dried cured ham, rock sugar and dried winter melon.  Jinhua hails from a city in the Zhejiang province of eastern China not far from Shanghai.

Mooncakes require elaborate skills and a variety of ingredients to make.  They also require golden syrup, cooking wine, lye water, reliable moulds and a good oven - presentation and taste are everything.  Outside Australia, the fillings of moon cakes are getting upmarket and cosmopolitan, including those that need to be refrigerated and have to be eaten immediately. Do not be surprised to  find flavours of yogurt, taro, chocolate, coffee, pandan, green tea, chicken floss, mango pomelo sago, durian and pineapple also being used, especially in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

The packaging design for mooncakes has leapt by bounds in this age of template manufacturing.  The mooncakes are not only gift wrapped in beautiful cardboard combinations but increasingly in wooden containers. Mooncakes sold in Australian cities usually come in four pieces and a box can cost anything from AUD 20 to 60.

They are easily seen for sale in Asian groceries, restaurants and cafes.  The latter tend to offer bite sized versions of the moon cakes.  There are imprints on the top of each mooncake, with symbolic writings indicating longevity and harmony or graphics of Chang E, the Goddess of the Moon in Chinese annals, or of the Rabbit that holds immortality implications and supposedly resides on the Moon in past Chinese legends.

The custom of officially recognising the beauty and significance of Earth's only Moon began in China during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD) and eating mooncakes was utilised as a significant communication tool to help over throw the Mongol Dynasty of Yuan (1271 to 1368).  Written messages of rising up in rebellions at a specified time across China were hidden inside mooncakes, which were widely distributed amongst the Han Chinese populace and therefore did not arouse the suspicions of the Mongol rulers, who accepted the eating of mooncakes at this time as a traditional practice.  What a brilliant idea, even emails and Twitter messages today are so easily detected.

The Mid-Autumn Festival in East Asia falls on the fifteenth night of the eighth moon in the Chinese Lunar Calendar (in 2012, it falls on the evening after the NRL Grand Finals in Australia September 30 and October 1).  The moon has always exerted a fascination in the hearts, minds and philosophy of the ruling courts in China as far back as the Shang Dynasty 3000 years ago, even before the country was united by the Qings.  Whether it is an excuse for adults to partake in tea or wine and poem recital, or for children to carry lit lanterns under the shining full moon, or just a timely celebration six months after the start of the Lunar New Year, it is amazing that the occasion is still marked by the drinking of good tea, groundnuts, dried pumpkin seeds, fresh pomelo fruits slices, taro bites and consumption of various types of so-called mooncakes.

So on that magical evening, make a traditional wish:
"Wish us a long life to share the beauty of this graceful moonlight, even if we are thousands of miles apart."


Joyce Jiao said…
HI,I like your blog, where r u from?
Kin Yuen said…
Thank you Joyce for your feedback. Just a bit of fun when I do the blog. I am from Wollongong NSW.

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