Updated: Mar 1
The Moon Festival, also known as the mid-autumn festival, is commonly celebrated across all over Asia (I.e. China, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines). The festival is on the 15th of the eighth month in the Lunar Calendar, which is around late September or early October when the full moon occurs. This year it falls on October 1st, 2020.
There are different myths associated with how the Moon Festival started but one of the most famous stories is regarding the hero Hou Yi and his wife Chang Er. Even with this story, there are different variations of it. But in general, it goes like this:
Hou Yi was an archer who lived in a time where there were 10 suns in the sky. With 10 suns in the sky, it burnt all the crops that people were growing. Seeing the devastation that led, the emperor ordered Hou Yi to shoot down the suns.
Hou Yi successfully shot down nine suns and left only one sun remaining. Awarded for what he had done for the kingdom, he received an elixir that grants immortality as a gift. However, Hou Yi was deeply in love with his wife, Chang Er, and did not want to have everlasting life if Chang Er can’t be there with him. Therefore, Hou Yi gave up the opportunity to live forever and asked Chang Er to look after the elixir.
But one day Hou Yi’s student came to steal the elixir. Chang Er had no other choice but to drink the elixir in order to foil his plan in stealing the elixir. The elixir made her body light and she floated to the moon. Later that day, the 15th of the eighth month in the Lunar Calendar, Hou Yi returned home and found out he was never going to see his beloved wife Chang Er again. Ever since then, on the same day each year, Hou Yi would put out a table full of Chang Er’s favorite food and look at the full moon to grieve and hope all these can be seen by his wife Chang Er on the moon.
People started to grieve with Hou Yi every year and it later evolved to a day where people celebrate for 2 fundamental concepts: to give thanks for the harvest and to gather with their family.
Different Types of Moon Cakes
蛋黃酥 Egg Yolk Mooncake or Egg yolk pastry
A must-have in the Moon Festival is the egg yolk mooncake, which is a derivative of Taiwanese mooncakes. Today, the origin of eating egg yolk cakes during the Moon Festival is hard to trace. We only know that cakes and pastries were luxurious foods to common folk back then due to the lack of resources in the early agricultural society. The demand for diversified pastries and cakes increased later when the standards of living improved. The egg yolk mooncake was introduced to people at that time.
The filling of a traditional egg yolk mooncake is a bean paste wrapped with salted egg yolk, usually using duck egg. The pre-production for salted egg yolk is to soak the egg yolks in hard liquor and bake them at medium temperature to remove the smell of egg yolk. Then, you cover the egg yolk with salt for 2 to 3 hours and this is the salted egg yolk that will be covered by the paste filling. The sweet bean paste is made from sword beans and the crust is flaky pastry. A delicious traditional egg yolk mooncake tastes crispy on the outside and soft on the inside when you bite into it. Each bite is filled with different textures and the taste is sweet and salty but not greasy. When tasting a traditional egg yolk mooncake, it is recommended to match with light-flavored teas such as oolong tea and green tea.
葷綠豆椪 (台式月餅) Mung bean and meat pastry (Taiwanese Mooncake)
The Mung bean and meat pastry is made with mung bean paste, pork meat floss, and salted egg yolk. When you bite into it, you can taste the sweetness of mung bean and the saltiness of pork meat floss and egg yolk mixed together which creates a unique flavor. Other common flavors include ground lotus seeds paste (蓮蓉), jujube paste (棗泥), and five smashed nuts paste (伍仁). There is also a vegetarian option for Mung bean pastries.
鴛鴦Q餅 Sesame Mochi Pastry
Sesame mochi cake is another popular pastry people have during the Moon Festival. This multi-layered flaky pastry features a unique filling made of pork meat floss, mochi, and mung bean paste. There is also an option for adding a salted egg yolk in the filling. Topped with white sesame as the final touch, the sesame mochi pastry is a delicious delicacy perfect for all ages.
鳳梨酥 Pineapple Cake
Being one of the most sought-after Taiwanese souvenirs, the pineapple cake is one of Taiwan’s most famous desserts. The main ingredients are flour, butter, sugar, egg, and pineapple sauce. It’s firm on the outside but soft and sweet on the inside. The Taiwanese (Hokkien) pronunciation of pineapple is “Wang Lai,” which means Auspicious Prosperity. Thus, pineapple cake is often regarded as one of the best souvenirs or gifts for clients, relatives, and friends during the holidays. In recent years, the baking industry started selling pineapple cakes in the mooncake gift box set during the Moon Festival.
綠豆糕 Mung bean paste mooncake (with red bean paste or salted egg yolk)
Mung bean paste mooncake is a popular Chinese dessert that people also eat at the Moon Festival. It’s made from a mung bean paste as the crust with different fillings such as red bean paste, mung bean paste, mung bean paste mixed with mushrooms, sesame paste or without filling. From colors to shapes, there are varieties of mung bean mooncake in Asia.
冰皮月餅 Snow skin mooncake
Snowy moon cake is a type of no-bake mooncake that consists of a tender mochi-like wrapper and a creamy custard filling. It is always served cold and must be stored in a low-temperature environment. It is generally believed to have originated in Hong Kong. The crust, which is usually a white outer layer, is made of a mixture of glutinous rice flour and flour. This is how it got the name “snow skin.” Since the now skin mooncake doesn’t involve baking during the production, the surface of the mooncake does not need to be oiled so it’s slightly healthier than traditional mooncakes. In addition to the traditional ground lotus seeds paste, there are also fruit paste, custard paste, and etc.
冰淇淋月餅 Ice cream mooncake
For people who want to add a twist to traditional mooncakes, ice cream mooncakes are here for you! Instead of flaky crust, ice cream mooncakes are often coated with chocolate, dark chocolate or milk chocolate. The filling of seeds or bean paste is replaced with various flavors of ice cream. The shape of modern ice cream mooncakes is typically squares or round shapes that share the same look as traditional mooncakes. You make the crust from white or dark chocolate for a variance in flavor and color. Sometimes there’s also “egg yolk” inside the ice cream mooncake. The ice cream egg yolk creates a similar look to the traditional mooncake’s egg yolk. Well-known ice cream brands such as Häagen-Dazs and Cold Stone both sell ice cream mooncakes.
How moon festival is celebrated in different cultures / or how it has evolved
Malaysia is a melting pot of diversity, aside from the core racial groups: Malays, Indians, and Chinese, there are also dialectic subsets of the Chinese population. There are large populations of Hokkien, Cantonese, and Hakka people who speak their own unique dialects. Therefore, you may hear many different names for the Mid-Autumn Festival. In Mandarin, it is called 中秋节(zhōng qiū jié). In Cantonese, it's pronounced as zung-cau-zit, and in Hokkien it sounds like tiong-chhiu-cheh.
In Malaysia, family plays a vital role in during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Similar to Vietnam, mooncakes and lanterns are key components for the festival. Besides that, families would also take this time to worship their ancestors. Malaysia is home to many temples, like Thean Hou temple, which is one of the biggest temples in Southeast Asia. A uniquely Malaysian addition to this festival is going to shopping malls! Mall culture is the very essence of the Malaysian experience and life. Young or old, poor or rich, going to a shopping mall is a universally Malaysian hobby. Because of this, shopping malls will go all out with decorations, activities, and contests to celebrate all holidays and attract families.
Lastly, in typical Malaysian fashion, the mooncakes sold will often come in a variety of non-traditional flavors! For example, pandan, coconut, and durian - flavors that are popular particularly in Malaysia.
In Vietnam, the Moon Festival is called “Tết Trung Thu” which essentially translates to the middle of autumn festival, or Mid-autumn festival. The Moon Festival is also known in Vietnam as the “Children’s Festival” as this is when the harvest season usually ends, and parents can relax from their hard work and spend quality time with their children. Since Vietnam does not celebrate the Lantern Festival which takes place during the end of Chinese New Year, the Moon Festival is considered the second most popular event in Vietnam, second only to Tết or Chinese New Year.
The legend of the Moon Festival actually differs greatly from the tale that is traditionally told in Chinese culture. In the Vietnamese legend, Cuoi is the main character. Similar to the Chinese tales, there are also different variations of the story but the most popular legend ends with Cuoi floating away to the moon on a magical banyan tree. This is why the Moon Festival is celebrated like the Lantern Festival in Vietnam because the lanterns that are paraded on the streets are meant as a way to guide Cuoi back to Earth.
In the days or weeks leading up to the festival, you will see lanterns and mooncakes being sold everywhere you go. Mooncakes are gifted amongst family members and friends and children are seen walking on the night of the moon festival, under the full moon, with their newly purchased lanterns. The two most popular types of crust in Vietnam are the snow skin (bánh dẻo) and roasted golden crust (bánh nướng). In modern-day Vietnam, there are also twists made to the traditional mooncake. As jelly (rau câu) is a popular dessert in Vietnam, jelly mooncakes have been on the rise lately.
In Taiwan, the Moon Festival is called 中秋節 (zhong qiu jie) which directly translates to Mid-Autumn Festival. In Taiwan however, the traditional Chinese characters used differ from the simplified version (中秋节) that has been adapted in mainland China. There are three main things that the Taiwanese people do to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. Their main forms of celebration include eating mooncakes, eating pomelo and wearing its peel, and barbequing.
Eating mooncake is one of the most common ways to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. People eat mooncakes as a way to celebrate gathering with each other to symbolize family reunion. Traditionally, this pastry is made from flour and sweet stuffing and people cut them into small pieces to reflect the number of people in their family. Additionally, people eat pomelo not only because it is the harvesting season for Pomelo in Taiwan, but because its name of pomelo in Mandarin (柚子) is also similar to the word for safety, good luck, and blessings (佑). In Taiwan, you would also see people wear the peel of pomelo as a hat to receive good blessings.
The third way that Taiwanese commonly celebrate the Mid-Autumn festival is to do a barbeque outdoors with family and friends while watching the full moon. The Mid-Autumn Festival is an important time for families to gather together and appreciate Chang Er (from the myth) for her sacrifice.