Mooncake Festivals of Yore – a reminiscence of the fun activities and special foods eaten during the Mooncake (Mid-Autumn) Festival.
The onset of fall in Minnesota is accompanied by the chirping of crickets in the evening and it becomes cooler with a nip in the air. The harvest moon looms large, appearing all the brighter against the dark velvet sky as the days grow shorter. Looking at that moon reminded me of another fond childhood memory of celebrating the Mooncake Festival that coincides with the 15th day of the 8th Month of the Lunar Calendar (within 15 days of the autumn equinox).
In my corner of rural Malaysia several decades ago, we really looked forward to this festival, also called The Lantern Festival, or the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节). Unlike the Chinese New Year festivities, there weren’t many taboos associated with this celebration (at least, none that were imposed on me!) and so for us kids it was much more relaxing and fun. There were several traditional stories associated with the moon or the moon cakes. My favorite one was about how during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, secret messages inserted into moon cakes signaled a rebellion against the occupiers that brought about the end of Mongol rule in China.
As compared to other festivals where Mom was always preparing dishes, this one was easy on the kitchen. The Mooncake Festival as the name suggests, involved a lot of Chinese cakes that were specialties that had to be bought from the grocery stores or downtown restaurants. The one that I remembered from early childhood were the brown cakes in the shape of piglets packed in little colorful plastic baskets called too kia na (猪仔篮饼). Little children were drawn to the colorful baskets and the fist-sized cakes were about the right size for smaller hands and mouths to handle. Another variant of this cake was molded into the shape of a fish and is larger than the piglet. I always thought of it as the “deluxe” model. There was an even larger super deluxe one which was molded in the shape of a Laughing Buddha.
Another confection that I remembered my Dad bringing home was the white, hard disk-shaped cakes called gue’ ko (月糕). These were normally molded into the shape of Chinese coins about 5 to 6 inches in diameter and were made from either sago or glutinous rice flour and lots of sugar. It was very sweet and had a hard, crumbly texture to it. One could not eat a lot of it as it sticks in the mouth. Until I was older, I always thought that “mooncakes” referred to this variety. In more recent years, I have not seen so much of this white cake, having been supplanted in most places by the more popular mooncake gue’ p’iah (月饼) with sweet paste and egg yolk filling.
Of course when we talk about “The Mooncake” (月饼), it is the golden brown-skinned confection filled with a variety of sweet pastes (lotus seed, red bean, or mung bean) and a lot of times with a salted egg yolk in the middle. Over the years, mooncakes have become incredibly expensive and also new flavors have been introduced like durian, yam (taro), and pandan just to name a few. Even the types of skins have become varied, with soft “snow” skin, or crumbly ones with the texture of filo pastry. Back in my childhood, they were still simple with sweet bean paste filling. Most of the time, I ate the ones without the yolks. To this day, I prefer the latter with a cup of Oolong tea.
I just wanted to also mention about Boiled Baby Taro that is quite a favorite among the Hakka and the Cantonese. In our Hokkien Baba household, the baby taro was not a tradition but I did remember my father bringing some home one year. The taro was boiled and then peeled and dipped in a mixture of sugar and salt. The one nut that we used to enjoy as kids was leng kak or water caltrop from China. This strange nut has a shape like that of a pair of horns, hence the name “dragon horns” in Hokkien. It was a lot of work for a little bit of food fun since the shell was pretty tough and we had to use a set of shearing pliers to open the horns.
No celebration of the Mooncake Festival would be complete without the nightly lantern walks that we had around our neighborhood. In those halcyon days, it was very safe to walk about even after dark and all of us kids looked forward to getting our new lanterns. The grocery store fronts will suddenly have a curtain of red glass paper-wrapped lanterns of all kinds of shapes hanging from the rafters. Back then, the dragon with a movable head that pivoted around a wire joint was the hot favorite. My elder brother always ended getting the dragon, while I had to be content with a lesser animal like an ox, or a rabbit. In later years, I saw battery-powered tanks, jets, and space rocket shaped lanterns taking over the top spot.
Since our lanterns were candle-lit (there was a little twisted wire that acted as the candle holder in the middle of the lantern), we had to be careful when walking about that the flame did not catch the lantern. Even the hot wax splattering onto the glass paper could burn huge oval-shaped holes. Many a child had a premature end to their lantern-carrying season when the prized possession caught fire and ended in a burning pile along some alley way. Boys being boys, lanterns were also damaged when they tried “fighting” their lantern animals by knocking them together.
The one thing that has not changed over the years is that big huge moon hanging in the sky in early autumn. According to Chinese folklore, there is a big white rabbit pounding away at a mortar on the moon. As a kid, I used to imagine that I could catch a glimpse of it when staring at the moon. Now, there are lots of rabbits running around my yard in Minnesota but they are all brown cottontails and none of them fit the bill of the shimmering white Jade Rabbit on the moon.