The time to enjoy mooncakes, family reunions, changing seasons and the full moon is almost here. Previously, we've shared places in Jakarta where you can get your fill of mooncakes, plus this year's interesting flavours. So, now it's time to read on for some fun facts behind and about the celebration and the delicious delicacy.
Harvest the history
This celebration is closely linked with harvest time, starting in China's 16th-century Shang Dynasty, in which families gather to give thanks and pray for a better future. The Hakka people set aside a worship time for the mountain gods for their crops, while the Baiyue people commemorated the dragon that brought rain for the crops. However, the festival only gained popularity around 618BC in the Tang Dynasty, when Emperor Xuanzong held formal celebrations after visiting the Moon Palace.
The moon does play a prominent role, aside from the round-shaped cakes, since this festival is held in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and other Chinese diasporas during the harvest moon. Chang'er, the moon goddess of immortality, is worshipped as the Chinese believe in the moon’s and water's association with rejuvenation. Her “ascension to the heavens” myth involves an immortality elixir and her famous-archer husband Houyi, who is depicted as either benevolent or malevolent.
As for the mooncakes themselves, the tale goes that the Ming revolutionaries overthrew Mongolian rulers at the end of the Yuan Dynasty aided by the cakes. The then-emperor of Hongwu and his adviser circulated a rumour about a deadly plague that only special mooncakes could cure. These cakes actually hid messages inside them, a probable precursor to the modern fortune cookies, or on the surface. A package of four cakes with printed designs would be cut into 16 pieces, assembled as a puzzle and then eaten to destroy: truly a sweet revenge.
Feel the skin
Mooncakes in Indonesia normally use the chewy Cantonese-style crusts from the Guangdong Province with fillings traditionally ranging from sweet pastes to chicken, duck, roast pork, mushrooms, up to four egg yolks to represent the moon's four phases, and so on. The dough is also shaped into fish or piglet shapes and sold at bakeries in small baskets to symbolise abundant fish caught or pigs bound for sale.
Suzhou- and Taiwan-style cakes have a flaky crust made from stir-frying dough and then alternating the oily dough and flour into layers similar to puff pastry. Their size is smaller than other styles, with the savoury version served hot and filled with pork mince or salt and pepper. Ningbo-style cakes, inspired by Suzhou, are known to be spicy and salty with ham or seaweed inside.
The Taiwanese, on the other hand, sometimes put mochi in the middle of the sweet red-bean paste or other savoury treat, aside from salted duck’s egg yolk, in a taro filling. Recently introduced is the tender mooncake crust akin to the short pastries of egg tarts or Western pies, though its presence is still rather rare. There are also Yunnan-style cakes made from rice, wheat and buckwheat flour with mostly sweet fillings.
Culture, tradition and a lot of fun
In Malaysia and Singapore, among other places, the celebration is referred to as the Lantern Festival— not to be confused with the festival at the end of Chinese New Year. Many other places include beautiful lanterns in the festivities and some people write riddles on them. Dragon and lion dances performed in a lantern-lined venue are a common sight, especially in southern China and Vietnam.
Tet Trung Thu, or the Children's Festival in Vietnam, puts the emphasis on children, who parade on streets with colourful masks and lanterns. Taiwan declares the mid-autumn festival as a public holiday, and families and friends gather for outdoor barbecues. Meanwhile, Hong Kong and Macau mark the day after the festival as a public holiday because celebrations are usually held at night.
For the ethnic minorities in China, the festival is celebrated in their own interesting ways. Korean minorities in northern China's Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture welcome the moon by building a conical "moon house" from dry pine branches; people then would gaze at the moonlight inside. Bouyei people in the south call it the Worshipping Moon Festival and pray to the ancestors, dine together and then bring rice cakes to the doorway for the Moon Grandmother.
(Photo Credit: Pixabay)