“LOVE you to the moon and back” as a phrase could not have been truer for the legend behind the mooncake festival.
Every year, the legend comes alive as tales of the archer hero Hou Yi pining for his wife Chang-Er, who now lives on the moon, is remembered during the Mid-Autumn Festival.
She had swallowed an elixir that transformed her into an immortal in a bid to save the treasured liquid from their evil nemesis, Peng Meng.
As such, she immediately floated up to the moon, never to return.
The second most important Chinese festival after the Lunar New Year, this celebration’s tale is one of several interesting facets that may be fodder for idle chat as you and friends or family sip some tea while enjoying mooncakes.
1 Shared Asian celebration
The Mid-Autumn Festival is not only celebrated by the Chinese. The Japanese celebrate tsukimi (moon-viewing) while the Koreans observe chuseok by visiting their ancestral homes. Both celebrate it as a harvest festival.
The Vietnamese also observe Tet Trung Thu (Children’s Festival) on the same lunar date. People in Cambodia celebrate the “water and moon festival” in late October to November, where they pay homage to the moon. According to their folklore, a rabbit lives there and protects their people.
2 Lantern fun
Children in Guang-dong province would carve pomelo skin into the shapes of animals or plants.
They put candles inside the pomelo skins to turn them into lanterns. Did you know that the Chinese traditionally celebrate the end of the Lunar New Year with a lantern festival?
3 Festival evolution
The Zhou Dynasty emperors worshipped the moon for their harvest. Later, it was popularised in the early Tang dynasty by the upper class who took to drinking, singing and dancing in celebration.
The commoners followed suit later.
Thanks in part to mooncakes, which were first introduced in 13th century China, the Ming dynasty later emerged and the people celebrated the festival with even more pomp and ancient pyrotechnics like fire dragon dances and burning pagoda constructed from bricks and tiles, filled with wood and bamboo.
4 Moon worship
In ancient times, the festival was a period when people would build altars in their front yard, with incense, candlesticks and food offerings to pray for their families, asking for good health, prosperity, success in finding spouses, fertility, beauty and happiness.
5 ‘Hu’ gave mooncake its name?
Once a upon a time, ancient Chinese people ate hu cakes (hu means whiskers) during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Legend has it that Tang dynasty emperor Li Longji did not think much of the name hu cakes.
While chewing on ideas together with him, his favourite concubine, legendary beauty Yang Guifei took inspiration from the silvery light in the sky and suggested the name “mooncake”.
6 Revolution, a piece of (moon)cake
In an attempt to end the Yuan dynasty, the Han Chinese led by general Zhu Yuanzhang sent messages embedded in mooncakes telling of an “uprising on the fifteenth night of the eighth month” to resistance forces against the Mongol rulers.
Their brilliant strategy succeeded and the Ming Dynasty was born. People commemorated the uprising by sending each other mooncakes on the same date every year.
7 Familial pastry tradition
Making mooncakes used to be a family reunion activity before the tradition died down and bakeries took over. One of the oldest, traditional artisanal mooncake makers in the country is found in Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur.
Spanning an 85-year history, Seong Ying Chai was reopened in 2018 and only bakes small batches according to orders during the mooncake festival season. One of their famous creations is the huge seven salted egg yolk mooncake.
8 Crab crawl custom
In Tianjin, families would release crabs carrying candles on their shells into their home’s compound during the festival.
If the crabs crawled towards the gate, it meant the family would suffer financial setbacks but if the crabs crawled within the house, the family would gain wealth. The crabs would eventually end up on the dinner table. Talk about crappy luck for these creatures.
9 Unexpected gold mine
In 2017, “The Most Expensive Commercial Mooncake” entered the Malaysia Book of Records with its 1.24kg snow skin mooncake measuring 17.5cm and 4cm in thickness. It sold for RM3,888!
Ingredients for this entry included 24-karat gold flakes, ginseng, cordyceps and bird’s nest. What takes the cake was when 33 chefs from the Six Happiness Group baked what they deemed as the world’s largest mooncake, weighing 2,348kg.
The Sunday Star in 2001 reported the mooncake as having a circumference of 3.1m and height of 25.4cm.
The cake cost RM56,000 to produce.
Six years later, the Guinness Book of World Records confirmed the world’s largest mooncake was in China — weighing 12.98 tonnes and could be shared by 110,000 people.
10 Mooncake variations
Different regions have different mooncake styles and fillings. Cantonese mooncakes are generally sweet with lotus paste fillings and egg yolk.
Guangdong province, where the Cantonese come from, has mooncakes containing ham, melon seed paste, chicken, duck or roast pork.
Snow skin mooncakes, which need to be stored in the fridge, originated from Hong Kong.
Yunnan mooncakes feature ham or flower fillings. Beijing-style mooncakes are meticulously decorated while Suzhou-style mooncakes, like the Shanghai mooncake, feature flaky pastry.
11 Funky flavours
Some of the more creative mooncake flavours in the market to date include instant noodle mooncake, gin or hu tiao wine-infused mooncake, Milo dinosaur mooncake, Root Beer mooncake, bak kwa (grilled meat) mooncake, tom yum mooncake and even dried shrimps mooncake. Malaysians sure are adventurous.
12 It’s a moonlit romance
This festival is known as the second Valentine’s Day amid Chinese festivals, the first being the fifteenth day of the first month.
The soft glow of the moonlight, celebratory air and pretty lanterns in olden days made for the perfect time to meet potential life partners.