Tasty and beautiful to look at, mooncakes symbolise the autumn in China. Here's what they are and why they're eaten.

The Mid-Autumn Festival and the mooncakes

Although less well-known internationally than New Year, this is one of the most important celebrations in Chinese culture. It is the Mid-Autumn Festival, held every year to honour the annual harvest in conjunction with lunar cycles. Depending on the calendar, the event always falls between the second half of September and the beginning of October and, like all great festivals, has its hallmark food. In this case, the mooncake underpins this event, such a special delicacy that has given rise to one of the most common nicknames for the festival, also known as Mooncake Day.

The mooncake legend

A sweet round pastry stuffed with red bean and lotus seed paste filling, decorated on top with carvings and shapes symbolising longevity and harmony. To represent the full moon, a whole duck egg yolk is often added to the filling. As with most traditional recipes, the origins of this cake are lost in the mists of time, with many legends about it. The most famous of these is the secret message in the filling. It seems that during the Mongol invasion led by Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and founder of the first Chinese empire of the Yuan Dynasty, the rebel Chinese leader, Zhu Yuanzhang, and his confidant, Liu Bo Wen, decided to implement a strategic plan to overthrow the Mongols. To do this, they needed to get the message across to the Chinese people without being seen. Liu asked and received permission to donate food to the citizens, and so distributed the mooncakes containing the note.

Mooncake symbolism

Mooncakes are made differently depending on the area and local traditions but, in any case, they are strongly associated with Chang’e, the Chinese moon goddess and symbol of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The myth has many versions, however they all have in common the story of her beloved, the legendary Hou Yi, the hero who shot down nine of ten suns to save the world from destruction. Another element linked to the pastries is Jade Rabbit, a bunny from Chinese mythology and one of Chang’e’s most faithful companions at the lunar palace: this explains why sometimes rabbit motifs on mooncake packaging, or even mini rabbit-shaped cupcakes can be found. Whatever the shape or style, mooncakes are a real business for China during September and October, also popular in other Asian countries. A tasty, good omens gift with a rich symbolism to celebrate autumn.

by Michela Becchi