If you are not familiar with Chinese culture, you most likely do not know what a mooncake is. That is okay because I will tell you everything about this food in this article, yay! The next post will be a recipe for snow-skin mooncakes.
First, we will start on the background of mooncakes. Mooncakes（月饼 – yue bing – “yweh beeng” – literally: moon flatbread）are neither a cake nor a flatbread, but a type of sweet eaten on the mid-autumn festival（中秋节 – zhong qiu jie – “djohng tsyoh dzyeh” – literally: middle fall [fall meaning autumn] holiday）, often called the moon festival in English. This day falls on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar. The 15th day of every lunar month is a full moon, and the 1st day is always a new moon. There are 360 days in a year in the Chinese calendar, not 365. Therefore, every 6 years, the sixth month repeats again so there are 13 months, which is 390 days. If the “leap month” is skipped, the seasons would become very strange and out of order. Back to the date of the mid-autumn festival – 15th day of the 8th month. Because every 15th day always has a full moon, the mid-autumn festival obviously has a full moon. The Chinese believe that the full moon on the mid-autumn festival is the brightest out of all full moons in the year. Traditionally, on the day of the mid-autumn festival, the autumn harvest was celebrated with a feast. Obviously, the autumn harvest is not very important anymore, but the festival is still celebrated with family reunions, a feast, moon-gazing, hanging Chinese lanterns, and burning incense to Chang-E. (I will explain the legend of Chang-E below.) The food will always include mooncakes, which are a symbol of the holiday.
The mid-autumn festival will take place on:
Monday, September 8, 2014
Sunday, September 27, 2015
Thursday, September 15, 2016
Wednesday, October 4, 2017
Monday, September 24, 2018
If you noticed, I mentioned someone named Chang-E above. Here is the legend of Chang-E below! There are so many variations, but here is the version I learned (and also my favorite because it makes both Hou-Yi and Chang-E a hero):
Once upon a time, a long time ago, there were 10 suns. The 10 suns took turns going in the sky so only one was there at a time. However, one day, they became quite lazy so all 10 suns appeared in the sky at once and did not come down. This caused the temperature to become unbearably hot, all the crops died, and lakes dried up. There was a giant famine and everyone starved. Finally, a very strong archer named Hou-Yi（后羿 – hou yi – “hoh yee”）shot down 9 of the suns so only one was left. He became a hero and soon became the emperor. However, after he became the emperor, he became lazy and neglected his duties. All he did was eat, drink, and have fun. One day, someone gifted him 2 bottles of the elixir of immortality, one for his wife. They were warned that if one drank both bottles, something bad would happen. His wife, Chang-E（嫦娥 – chang e – “chahng uh”）did not want Hou-Yi to live forever because he was a terrible emperor. Therefore, she drank both bottles even though she knew about the negative consequences. After drinking both, she started floating up to the moon. Hou-Yi saw her, but they could not stop the force. She ended up living on the moon forever, as she still became immortal. She lives with her immortal pet white rabbit, the only one to keep her company. Back on Earth, Hou-Yi understood why his wife drank both bottles, and became a good emperor until his death later on. The end!
So, now that you know the story and the holiday, you must wonder why the story has nothing to do with mooncakes. This is because mooncakes were invented much later than the story was. The mooncake is a very sweet and rich food the size of your palm. It is circular and consists of a very thin wrapper around a filling, usually very sweet. These fillings can be lotus seed paste, red bean paste, mung bean paste, mixed nuts and ham, pineapple jam, red jujube paste, and more. The wrapper can be a pastry made from flour, egg, invert syrup, and a little potassium carbonate solution (this is Cantonese style). It can also be flaky pastry (this is Eastern Chinese style), or made from sticky rice flour (this is called snowskin mooncake). The Cantonese style usually has lotus seed paste with salted duck egg yolks. If you are not Chinese, you may think this sweet food seems very strange (salted duck egg yolks!), but it is eaten by all Chinese people. In China, mooncakes are always a gift item sent to everyone where you work. You may have received a box from Chinese co-workers. Mooncakes are eaten by cutting into small wedges and eating with a pick that usually comes with the mooncakes in the box.
Cantonese style mooncakes are very hard to make if from scratch. The invert syrup and salted duck egg yolks must be prepared a month ahead, and the pastry is quite hard to prepared thinly and delicately. If I buy these premade, I may try to make it at home and share the recipe. The recipe I will share with you is for the much easier snowskin mooncakes. They are also much friendlier with non-Asians as they do not contain salted duck egg yolks. The filling can be red bean paste or yellow mung bean paste, both which I will share easy recipes.
For snowskin, as well as Cantonese style mooncakes, you need a mooncake mold. There are traditional wooden ones and modern plastic ones. I have never seen them outside of China, but you may find them in large Chinatowns. You can order them on Ebay, shipping from China or Hong Kong. If you have Chinese relatives, ask them to bring when they visit you (that’s what I did XD) and if you visit China, BUY ONE. The modern plastic ones are all I can find now on Ebay. They are also easier to use, so I recommend. If you can find traditional wooden ones, they still work well.
You also need a very hard to find ingredient labeled “roasted glutinous rice flour” which is not actually roasted and is gluten free. I will explain it in the recipe post.
If you enjoy Japanese daifuku mochi (大福餅), you will also enjoy snowskin mooncakes, I promise. If you have not tried any sweets with sweet bean pastes before, I recommend you to try one first, as apparently some non-Asians dislike the taste. You can find snowskin mooncakes frozen at Chinese supermarkets during the time near the mid-autumn festival.
PS. If you like salted duck egg yolks (CONGRATULATIONS IF YOU DO AND YOU ARE NOT ASIAN!!) I recommend you to buy a box of Cantonese style mooncakes with lotus seed paste and salted duck egg yolks. Some of the brands are really expensive, but I just get the cheaper kind. The cheaper kinds use a mixture of white beans and lotus seeds instead of just lotus seeds, but they still taste very good to me. I bought the Joy Luck Palace brand from Taiwan. I recommend Taiwanese brands over mainland Chinese brands as Taiwan has better quality control than mainland China.
If you don’t, you can try to find a box of mooncakes without salted duck egg yolks (this is quite challenging task) and try them.
Just a warning, mooncakes are very sweet and rich!