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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of mooncakes, the Mid-Autumn Festival classic

By Beverly Ngai 8 September 2021

Header image courtesy of @logistics_reports (via Instagram)

Mid-Autumn Festival is nearly upon us and that means the Hong Kong masses are stocking up on their favourite seasonal treat—mooncakes, traditionally an intricately patterned pastry filled with a sweet lotus seed paste and salted egg yolk. Cut into small wedges to be shared among loved ones while moongazing, the exquisite delicacy is the hallmark of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, a poster child of sorts for harmony and family unity.

There is no denying the frenzy for mooncakes during this time of the year, with every shape, flavour, and variety imaginable swamping the market. And yet, perhaps not many of us are privy to their historical significance. What if we told you that all is not as it seems? If you scratch beneath the surface of this elaborately embossed golden pastry, you’ll uncover a history that is far more nuanced than what it represents in modern-day...

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Muddled origins

Nibbling on mooncakes with a cup of hot tea is a yearly tradition embraced by virtually every Chinese household during the Mid-Autumn Festival—it’s almost impossible to imagine celebrating the full moon without it. Perhaps a reason for that is because no one can definitively trace back to a specific point in time when the iconic pastry first came to be. The genesis of mooncakes has long been a source of mystery and speculation, with different sources pointing to anywhere from as early as the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1700 BC to 256 BC) to the Yuan dynasty (1271 to 1368).

Among the stories that have survived the chasms of history and made their way into mainstream consciousness, the most commonly accepted versions look to the Tang dynasty (618 to 907). One legend claims that after Emperor Taizong (唐太宗) returned from a triumphant conquest of the Huns during one year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, a round cake was presented to him by Turfan people in celebration of the military victory. The sweet delicacy was then shared among the people in the royal palace and was so well-favoured that it became a regular feature in upper-class Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations. 

Allegedly, mooncakes back then were made with a combination of sesame seeds and crushed walnuts, and were originally known as “hubing” (胡餅)—an abbreviation of “walnut cake” in Chinese. However, the moniker was disfavoured by later Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, who lobbied for a new name. 

One year’s Mid-Autumn Festival when Emperor Xuanzong and his concubine Yang Guifei were enjoying the cake under the full moon, Yang was inspired by the extraordinary lunar spectacle, and in a spur of the moment, declared the cake in her hand “mooncake.” It was then that the term “mooncake” was coined, sealing the delicacy’s unbreakable tie with Mid-Autumn Festival and lunar appreciation.

A more fantastical tale recounts that mooncakes originally hailed from the Chinese goddess of the moon, Chang’e (嫦娥). The story goes that Emperor Taizhong was invited for a tour of Chang’e’s moon palace, where he was offered the lunar deity’s favourite treats, mooncakes. After returning from his trip, the emperor longed for another taste of the celestial delicacy and ordered his servants to re-create the pastry so that it could thereafter be relished on earth.

A revolutionary past 

Although the true origins of mooncakes have been obscured by time and pulled in all different directions, many believe that their widespread popularity was cemented only after playing a pivotal role in the demise of the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty.

Throughout the Yuan dynasty, years of oppression and institutionalised discrimination towards the Han Chinese fostered strong resentment against the ruling Mongolians, and a growing rebellion had emerged to overthrow the dynasty by the mid-seventeenth century. One Chinese revolutionary named Chu Yuan-chang (who later ascended to become Hongwu Emperor) devised a plan of attack against the Mongolian government on the fifteenth of the eighth lunar moon, the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

He disseminated the message by hiding a small note inside mooncakes with a message that called people to revolt on the same day and distributing the cakes to the Han population. Some sources say that in order to rally more people to join their cause, Chu even started a rumour among the Hans about a deadly plague ravaging the nation, and the only way to fight it was by eating special mooncakes that purportedly had healing properties.

Any which way, the mooncake ploy worked to the desired effect and successfully helped Chu yuan-chang defeat the Mongolians. Upon the establishment of the new Ming dynasty, mooncakes were relegated as an official food eaten by all during the Mid-Autumn Festival in honour of the successful revolution; and thus were mooncakes brought into mainstream Chinese food culture.

Photo: SanDisk (via Facebook)

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Taking on new meaning

After gaining momentum across all echelons of society, the political thrust of mooncakes gradually got lost on the masses. Spurred by the fact that the Mid-Autumn Festival was growing into one of the most celebrated holidays in China in the Ming dynasty, mooncakes were largely depoliticised by all the sumptuous festivities and vibrant cultural activities that went on, becoming synonymous with the festival itself.

Aristocrats or commoners alike, it became custom for people to return to their families during this time of year to give thanks to harvest and appreciate the moon together whilst feasting on mooncakes. The decadent sweets morphed into a symbol of family reunion, peace, and harmony, often gifted between friends, relatives, and business acquaintances as a token of appreciation and a means of cultivating good relations.

The new meaning that mooncakes took on was reflected in their appearance as well. Spreading well-wishes to their recipients, they often came in round shapes to symbolise togetherness and reunion; and stamped with Chinese characters for “harmony” and “longevity.”

Photo: @thepeninsulaboutique (via Instagram)

Mooncakes in Hong Kong

Over the centuries, regional varieties of mooncakes with all sorts of flavour and textural profiles came into existence, ranging from sweet to savoury, tender to flaky, and everything in between. In Hong Kong, the most traditional style of mooncakes draws from its Cantonese brethren, featuring a soft, golden shortcrust pastry encasing a smooth and dense lotus seed paste filling. Often wedged inside are one or more whole salted egg yolks, meant to represent the moon at its peak illumination.

While the traditional version is still very much at the forefront of most local Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations, Hong Kong has also spawned its own distinctive breeds of mooncakes in recent decades. Among them, snow skin and custard mooncakes are two game-changing inventions that have grown to become nearly as popular and indispensable as their classical counterparts.

Snow skin mooncakes made their debut in the 1960s, developed as a lighter and non-baked alternative to the oil and sugar-laden traditional mooncakes. Touting a chewy, mochi-like crust made with steamed glutinous rice flour, the cake’s delicate translucent-white exterior gave it the name “snow skin” mooncake. Believe it or not, primitive versions of snow skin mooncakes were not actually served chilled, but only evolved into their present frozen form in 1989 when local bakery Taipan launched the first chilled snow skin mooncake to city-wide fanfare.

Proving to be more than just a novelty, Taipan’s frozen mooncakes continued to be embraced with immense enthusiasm in the years to follow, pushing the brand to continue its path of unorthodox creations. They began peddling every flavour and filling variety under the sun, from the classic mung bean paste to trendy contemporary combinations like matcha red bean and mango pomelo sago. Witnessing the success of snow skin mooncakes, other brands like Maxim’s and Wing Wah started hopping onto the bandwagon, and it’s safe to say that they did not look back.

Another pride and joy of Hong Kong’s mooncake scene are, of course, the ever-raved custard mooncakes, which were first introduced by the Peninsula Hotel’s Spring Moon Restaurant in 1986. A delicate amalgamation of both Western and Chinese influences, the impeccable match of the golden cookie crust with the creamy yet fluffy egg custard galore instantly took the city by storm.

In the first year they were released, the indulgent custard-filled treats were available exclusively at the restaurant, but the overwhelmingly positive response prompted the hotel to roll them out for retail as well the next year. Needless to say, they were so sought-after that the restaurant even had to hire temporary workers to aid with production! Fast-forward to the present day, our appetite for custard mooncakes has yet to subside, only now they are ubiquitous across hotels and bakeries in the city.

What‘s in store for mooncakes?

With Hong Kong’s fiercely competitive and ever-changing dining landscape, it seems that each autumn brings forth a new bounty of trendy creations. Modern-day variations range from mochi- and durian-filled parcels to exotic renderings made with beef tenderloin to emulate beef Wellington! 

Some may see this as an unwelcome encroachment of cultural tradition, but the fact is that mooncakes have been evolving in response to societal preferences for the past millennium and will likely continue to do so in the future. In spite of the changes, however, the essence of the age-old tradition around gifting and eating mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival has shown no signs of fading out of favour.

Our love for mooncakes has never been simply about elaborate craftsmanship and unbridled innovation, but their power to bring people together and reignite within us joyous memories shared with loved ones. As we continue to find comfort, resonance, and grounding in the deep-rooted values that they have come to embody, we will unfailingly return year after year to indulge in our love affair with mooncakes.

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Beverly Ngai

Junior editor

A wanderer, chronic overthinker, and baking enthusiast, Beverly spent much of her childhood in the United States before moving to Hong Kong at age 11 and making the sparkling city her home. In her natural habitat, she can be found baking up a storm in her kitchen, journalling at a café, or scrolling through OpenRice deciding on her next meal.

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