Cutting into a rich mooncake while having tea steeping as you admire the moon is just one of the ways East and Southeast Asians celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.
The Mid-Autumn Festival celebrates the end of the autumn harvest in line with the full moon. In accordance with the Lunar calendar, it occurs on the fifteenth day of the eighth month. Because it is based on the Lunar calendar, its Gregorian calendar date changes every year. The holiday also is called the Mooncake festival in Chinese, and similar Mid-Autumn festivals celebrated include Tsukimi in Japan, Tết Trung Thu in Vietnam, and Chuseok in Korean.
It’s common practice to have mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Boxes of moon cakes are given out as gifts before and during the Mid-Autumn Festival. It’s as much fun to pick among the elaborately decorated boxes of moon cakes as it is eating them.
Mooncakes are wheat flour cakes, pressed with intricate designs on top. They typically have sweet fillings, the most popular including mixed nuts, lotus seed paste, red bean paste, and mung bean paste. There is a rapidly expanding list of fillings, including durian and tarp, as different types of mooncakes are being created.
Despite being sweet desserts, they are not technically “sweet” in comparison to traditional frosted cakes. The standard bean fillings make for a starchier, dense cake. Their flavors are borderline savory.
Across China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Macao and other countries that celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival, there are distinct types of mooncakes and flavor profiles.
Types of mooncake
Eating mooncakes has been a Mid-Autumn Festival tradition for centuries. With the evolution of taste profiles, there are more types and fillings.
The top three types of mooncakes are assorted nuts, lotus seed paste and red bean paste. These often include the addition of one, two or even four salted egg yolks.
Assorted nuts is an oversimplification of the Chinese translation of “five types,” referring to the common five ingredients: walnuts, almonds, Chinese almonds, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds. Through the years, more ingredients were added to the filling. Now, there are various dried fruits, nuts and other grains inside of this type of mooncake.
There are a lot of textures depending on the types of nuts, but it’s usually a lighter flavor despite how dense it appears. It can be sticky if the mooncake have golden syrup in it, but it will be sweeter.
Lotus seed paste is a mild flavor. Red bean paste deceivingly looks like chocolate when you cut into it because of how densely it is packed into the mooncake. Other beans are often made into paste to be used as mooncake fillings, the most common include winter gourd and mung bean.
Salted egg yolks might seem strange to add into a sweet pastry, but many Asian desserts border on a subtle sweetness that is almost savory. The addition of salted egg yolks helps to provide texture and additional flavor to the sweetness and density.
Though there are more filling flavors wildly available now, you previously could only find them from specific regions or countries. For example, durian mooncakes were only available in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, since the fruit is grown there.
Even if there are no nuts in a mooncake, it is not advised to eat them if you have a nut allergy because many mooncakes are produced among nut-filling mooncakes. Also, there are not many types of mooncakes that are vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free.
Mooncake consumption 101
The first rule of mooncake eating is do not pick up the mooncake and take a bite out of it.
Even though it looks like the right portion for one person, mooncakes are best enjoyed as small slices. Cut into sixths or eighths, the perfect size to get all the flavors but not be overwhelmed by them.
Do share mooncakes, as it’s commonplace to have many varietals out and sliced to snack on. They go down much easier with a cup of tea.
If you end up with leftover mooncake, wrap with plastic and cover or store in airtight containers at room temperature for up to a week. If you wish to keep them longer, store in the refrigerator. This applies to most types of mooncakes unless the packaging says otherwise.
Where to get them
It’s a bit late to get mooncake, but a limited quantity is available at some local East Asian grocery stores, including Wing Wa Oriental Market, Que Huong Oriental Foods and A Dong Market.
Most of the ones available are shipped in from California. Many of the Asian bakeries in Portland have discontinued their mooncake production as it is labor-intensive.
Regardless of if you end up getting mooncakes, I hope you all are able to admire the harvest moon during the Mid-Autumn Festival.