This year, the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhōngqiū jié: 中秋節) fell on September 21 - 23. Out of all of China’s festivals, the Mid-Autumn Festival is considered the second most important holiday after the Lunar New Year, and because it prioritizes
family togetherness, it has often been compared to Thanksgiving. In addition to decorating streets and backyards with colorful lanterns and gathering for a big feast with loved ones, the biggest tradition of the festival is mooncakes (Yuèbǐng: 月饼).
Mooncakes are a round pastry filled with a mixture of sweet and savory ingredients, such as egg yolk, mixed nuts, fruit, and minced meat. Their round shape and golden color harkens the moon. Similar to a creme brulee, mooncakes have a hard, glazed top and soft, creamy inside. The flavor, however, is much more dense, and leaves you feeling like the harvest moon: completely full. While mooncakes can be as small as macaroons, most are as big as an orange. Their appearance is deceiving: they seem simple to make, but in reality, it takes an Iron Chef-level of skill to replicate. Baking a dozen mooncakes can take up to about 12 hours. Since only the ambitious few make them from scratch, most families buy them from their local bakeries or grocery stores.
Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many families are celebrating the festival from a distance. Zhao na, a student ambassador for CUSEF studying at Beijing Foreign Studies University, shared her experience celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival. In previous years, she would return home to Inner Mongolia. However, this year she is spending the break at school. Thankfully, she had her peers with whom to celebrate; and to keep with tradition, the university gave each student a Beijing-style mooncake filled with egg yolk and dried meat.
To remind her of home, Zhao na’s mother sent her a dozen mooncakes from their local bakery to share with friends. In the Inner Mongolia region, the standard mooncake is a milk skin mooncake. “It tastes like cheese when it’s hot. It’s sweet and a little bit salty,” she describes. Her friends from other regions, like Hunan and Hainan, were surprised by its taste. “They had never tried a mooncake like this. They thought it was really tasty,” Zhao na recounted, smiling. She, herself, enjoys trying new flavors every year. “Some are really tasty but some--oh no--are really bad,” she said laughing.
“For me, my favorite part is getting together with my family and enjoying the different flavors of mooncakes,” Zhao na explained. However, she welcomed the change this year as she relaxed from the stress of classes in her final year of school: sleeping in, having a self-care day, ordering food delivery, and watching a movie with her friends.
This year’s circumstances also enabled her to share the festival’s tradition with foreign students at the university. Many students at Beijing Foreign Studies University come from other countries, such as Korea, Japan, Thailand, and Malaysia. Zhao na, who volunteers at the international student office at her university, decided to throw a small gathering: “we celebrated together, played some games, and enjoyed mooncakes together,” Zhao na recalled.
The popularity of mooncakes stretches far beyond China’s borders and can be found in any Chinatown in the U.S. However, few Chinese bakeries overseas make their mooncakes from scratch. In New York City’s Chinatown, Golden Fung Wong is one of those few. It is also one of the oldest counter-service bakeries in Chinatown, operating for over 60 years. Located at 41 Mott Street, this small, authentic family-owned bakery looks like it was taken right out of a street in Beijing, both because of its traditional appearance and its menu. “If you notice the interior and the food, we’re very traditional compared to other bakeries around here. And we make everything by hand. We don’t buy from outside companies,” Fanny, one of the vendors, told us.
According to Fanny, over three hundred customers come shop at Golden Fung Wong per day. Many of them are in search of mooncakes. The bakery has a wide selection of generously-sized mooncakes, from the more traditional--black bean, lotus, mixed nuts--to the more eccentric--green tea, pineapple, date. Generally-speaking, “Americans like the more eccentric flavors and Chinese get the more traditional ones,” Fanny said. The mooncakes are artfully displayed across two out of their three counter rows, and each are individually wrapped, making it easy for a grab-and-go. Black bean is Fanny’s favorite mooncake. She describes it as being sweet, having a “grainy texture,” and “a little bit heavy.”
Mooncakes are more than just a pastry. They bring families together, facilitate cross-cultural exchanges--be it among Chinese friends from different regions or between Chinese and American friends--and sweeten your day. Fortunately, mooncakes are sold year-round, so even though the Mid-Autumn Festival is over, you can still enjoy them!
If you’re seeking a challenge, here is a list of mooncake recipes you can try:
- Lotus Mooncakes with Salted Egg Yolks (The Woks of Life)
- Cantonese Mooncake with Salted Egg Yolk (RedeHouseSpice)
- Snow Skin Mooncakes (The Woks of Life)
- Mooncakes with Nuts (China Sichuan Food)
- Mooncakes (Food Network Kitchen)
- Savory Suzhou Mooncakes (NYT)
- Honeyed Pistachio Mooncakes (NYT)
- Chinese Spiral Flaky Pastry Mooncake (The Hong Kong Cookery)