Moon Cakes and Mid Autumn Festival

Today, September 12, is the mid-Autumn Festival here in China, a day similar to Thanksgiving in the US where everyone gets together with their families. The story of the mid-Autumn Festival is at the end of the post if you would like to read it. I copied it from Chinese Podcast.

It is a big tradition to give moon cakes to friends and family and colleagues at this time. All last week you could see people carrying fancy bags like this:

These are the moon cakes we gave. The bag and the box are just as important as the actual moon cake.

The last several weeks Mark and his admin, Qing, have spent a lot of time writing his list of all the people he and we need to give mooncakes to and deciding where we should buy our mooncakes. (Some places are more prestigious than others.) Last week we delivered our boxes to various people here at Shanghai Centre, like the doormen, the customer service people, and the cleaning ladies as well as Chen shi fu and and Qing (who got an additional gift for her trip to the States this week and all her extra hard work).

Everyone’s face lit up with such surprise when they got them, it was quite fun.

These are the mooncakes we got from Shanghai Centre. The box is a heavily padded, faux leather.

Inside our boxes. As you can see we bought them at the Radisson. Many of the hotels sell mooncakes, as does the Portman where we live.

Getting ready to sample our first mooncake. These are the traditional ones with bean paste and the egg yolk in the center.

Must be an acquired taste.

This is as far as Meredith got into hers.

Interestingly, the people who wrote thank you notes all said the same thing: thank you for the sweet mooncakes. And yet, when you first eat them they barely taste sweet at all.  After eating half  a one (I persevered), I did have that sort of sick feeling one gets after eating something sickly sweet. I also hadn’t realized the egg yolk would be salted, so that was a surprise.

Because of the mid-autumn festival, Meredith had a 4 day weekend, so we took advantage of this and went to:

Guesses, anyone? You’ll have to tune in to the next post to discover the answer.  I’ll try to do it promptly!

What’s the Deal with Mid-Autumn Festival?

Although it doesn’t have the catchiest English name around, 中秋节 (Zhōngqiū Jié) is one of the most important holidays on the Chinese calendar. Usually called “Mid-Autumn Festival” in English, 中秋节 falls on the 15th day of the Chinese calendar’s eighth month (八月 – bāyuè), which tends to be in mid to late-September, occasionally extending into October. 中秋节 celebrates the end of the Autumn harvest season and the point when the moon is at its brightest, and it’s happening this coming Monday, September 12th. So get your mooncakes (月饼 – yuèbĭng) ready, because in this week’s ChinesePod Weekly, we’re going to learn all about 中秋节!

The Never-Ending Story

The story behind 中秋节 is a really interesting one that holds a special place in Chinese culture and history – it begins with the deity 嫦娥 (Cháng’é), the Chinese goddess of the moon, and her husband 后羿 (Hòuyì). There are many, many versions of the story (as one would expect given China’s size and diverse cultures), but most involve 后羿 and 嫦娥 being expelled from heaven and forced to live on Earth, where 后羿, who was an archer, had to hunt for his own food and otherwise do the things that we lowly mortals do. Now, around this same time, 羲和 (Xīhé) who was the goddess of the sun (also frequently referred to in English as “the mother of the suns”), was in charge of guiding the ten suns (in the guise of three-legged birds) around the Earth, one at a time. One day, though, all ten of the suns were out in full force, and so the Earth began to burn up. 后羿 was tasked with using his archery skills to eliminate all but one of the suns, and when he was successful, the Emperor granted 后羿 a pill that could give him eternal life and other powers – with the stipulation that he fast for an entire year before taking it (a most unenviable task).

Still considering the idea, Hòuyì hid the pill in his home and went off to do the sort of extremely awesome business that archers in ancient China inevitably had to do. 嫦娥 noticed the pill in their home and, in a serious Eve moment, swallowed it. Needless to say, 后羿 wasn’t happy. He began excoriating Cháng’é, but she used her newfound powers to fly out the window and eventually settled on the moon, which is when the 中秋节 part starts to come into play. 嫦娥 encountered 玉兔 (Yùtù), the “Jade Hare” that lives on the moon. Cháng’é demanded he make another pill for her, and legend has it that he’s still trying today. Meanwhile, 后羿 built a palace on the sun, which is where the concept of 阴阳 (yīnyáng) comes from: 后羿 lived on the sun and represents the male side (阳) and 嫦娥 the female (阴). He comes to visit her once a year, the legend goes, and that’s why the moon is so bright and full, and why it’s the day 中秋节 is observed.

Layer Cake

There are a number of dances that mark the 中秋节 celebration, but by far the most well-known Mid-Autumn Festival tradition is the 月饼 (yuèbĭng) or mooncake. While not everyoneis a huge fan, 月饼 is as integral a part of 中秋节 as turkey at American Thanksgiving. These usually-round pastries, which are literally everywhere in China and overseas Chinese communities this time of year, are made from lotus seed, red bean, or black bean paste and egg yolks. The egg yolks tend to be from salted duck eggs, however, and can be a bit…unusual-tasting, especially for Westerners. While basic mooncakes are available, these days hugely elaborate ones are often given as gifts to family members or business clients; in this way 月饼 are quite similar to the oft-mocked fruitcakes frequently given as gifts around Christmastime in the West. Fancy mooncakes may include four egg yolks, to symbolize the four phases of the moon, and lately even ice cream 月饼, made by Haagen-Dazs, have become available in some areas. It seems like whatever your preferred flavor, there is a mooncake to satisfy it.

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About DECRYPTKNIT: knitter on the loose in Shanghai

Hi, I'm Marisa Newhouse, a former pharmacist (for a brief time during the Reagan administration) who's real calling was probably anything that has to do with cooking, plants, literature and especially knitting; hence my last and favorite job, working at Woolyminded, a wonderful yarn store. But now, I have moved half a world away to Shanghai where my husband will be working. Lots of people are interested in what we will be doing here and I have always kept journals of our travels, so I thought I'd do it the modern way and keep a blog.
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