Celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is a harvest celebration, rooted in ancient agricultural traditions. The origins of the moon cake, the ubiquitous festival treat, are a little harder to uncover, cloaked in many myths. One legend says that the cakes were used to transfer secret messages during the revolt against Mongol rule. Another links their origin to the worship of Chang’e, the Moon Goddess.
Such food lore is best taken with a grain of salt. Moon cakes, however, are best with tea. The name notwithstanding, the palm-sized treats are actually made of a rich pastry dough that’s molded in rounds or squares with scalloped edges. Traditionally filled with lotus seed paste and salted duck egg yolk, the golden center is meant to symbolize the moon.
But many of the moon cakes marketed today resemble the classic version only in shape. There are chocolate moon cakes, ice cream moon cakes (a big hit for Häagen-Dazs), and “snow skin” moon cakes are made from glutinous rice (sticky rice), with fruit fillings that reflect the contemporary taste for lighter sweets. Moon cakes are given as gifts within families as well as in the workplace, and the more impressive and luxurious the box, the better.
The most expensive moon cakes are even considered valuable enough to buy political favor; Beijing officials this year banned party members from using public funds to buy the treats.
You can find moon cakes in many Hong Kong restaurants, bakeries, and supermarkets this time of year. For something special, consider ordering from one of these outlets:
Spring Moon at the Peninsula Hong Kong. Made with the same recipe since 1986, the Peninsula produced 378,000 boxes of moon cakes last year. Spring Moon, the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star hotel’s Cantonese restaurant, makes a limited edition, mini version, which is perhaps the most prized moon cake in all of Hong Kong. And although the wee treats sold out in back in July, you can still purchase other varieties of the desired dessert.
The Mandarin Cake Shop at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong. The Five-Star hotel sticks to tradition with lotus seed paste filling, double or single yolks, and very pretty gift hampers. You can order the cakes here.
Ms. B’s. Intricately frosted and filled with fresh cream, cake mistress Bonnae Gokson’s moon cakes veer widely from tradition. Inspired by the paper lanterns hung during the Mid-Autumn Festival, and flavored with pomelo, mango, and coconut, they are, like most of Ms. B’s creations, almost too pretty to eat.
126 Grammes. This French boutique bakery, which specializes in cream puffs, is making moon cake-shaped chocolate bonbons, filled with ganache flavored with praline, sesame, or green tea. Trés cute.
Photos Courtesy of The Peninsula and Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group