Why we eat mooncakes today, and how to make them yourself

Mooncakes are a traditional rich pastry eaten for the Mid-Autumn festival in East-Asian communities. Sherry Zhang shares a few recipes for mooncakes from her friends and family.

October 1st is the Mid-Autumn festival for the East-Asian community and, like many harvest festivals around the world, it’s about having a big ol’ feast with your family.

This year has been a difficult time for many communities, especially for those with loved ones overseas. I lost my grandmother in China as the first set of travel restrictions rolled onto New Zealand. My Ma took it particularly hard, and as the youngest daughter, she couldn’t fulfil her duty to see off her mother before the seven-week funeral ended.

There are a few variations of Mid-Autumn festival in the Asian region, with 中秋节 moon festival in China, 추석 chuseok in Korea, and 月見 tsukimi from Japan all falling on the same day. 

According to the lunar calendar, it falls on the 15th day of the eighth month. This is usually sometime between mid September and early October on the Gregorian calendar. In Ancient China, mooncakes were important sacrificial offerings during the festival. Today, these round pastry cakes vary from region to region, but are always eaten at this time of year. 

A variety of mooncakes for sale in Shanghai, China (Photo: Getty Images)

My family is from Longyuan, in the Fujian province, China. We celebrate the Mid-Autumn festival by eating large pancake shaped mooncakes filled with lard, peanuts, sesame seeds, dried watermelon and raisins. My great-great-grandparents were the mooncake makers for the village, and my Ba (Dad) says there are still huge old plates and crockery used for making the cakes hanging in his childhood home. 

In our village, mooncakes are also engagement gifts. The groom-to-be is required to give baskets of these cakes to his fiance’s family which are then used by her family to announce the engagement of their daughter.

As mooncakes vary significantly across the region, divisive debates often break out across social media, particularly WeChat, as to the best kind of mooncake. Savoury or sweet. With a salted duck egg yolk in the middle, or without. My personal favourite is the traditional white lotus double yolk cakes, while my Shanghainese friend swears by spiced sausage meat 鮮肉月餅 ones. He recommends seeking out the Shanghainese couple who sell them at Tai Ping supermarket in Mt Albert, Auckland, if you want to try them yourself.  

Traditional Shanghai-style sausage meat-filled mooncakes (Photo: Getty Images)

My friend from northeastern China calls meat-filled mooncakes blasphemy, and tries to win me over with a photo of a half-bitten flaky single yolk mooncake. Taro and red bean paste are also popular varieties. The Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall from Singapore has compiled some of these variations into an easy to understand “which mooncake should you try,” horoscope format. 

Mid-autumn harvest is when the moon is the biggest and brightest. In our village, large extended families live together around a central courtyard temple. According to my Ba, the moon would be so bright on this day, “kids would play in the courtyard till late, and you would be able to read books under the moonlight. The older people would read poetry and stories.” 

Ma used to be a kindergarten teacher in China, so I was directed to her to understand the mythology behind the festival. However it’s also been far too many years since she’s had to tell it:

“There is a lady called chang’e, she’s very beautiful. And she drank a potion which meant she could fly. As she flew too high, to the sky, she landed on the moon. There’s also a man… a strong man. There’s also a rabbit on the moon, who’s punished by a god to chop medicine on the moon for eternity. The rabbit keeps her company. Chang’e feels a lot of regret, and so if you look at the moon, you can try to see the moon goddess and her rabbit.” 

“But what about the man?”

“Huh?”

“What’s his point to the story?” 

I can’t remember. Ask your father.” 

Left: Min Dynasty painting of Chang’e, Right: Fujian Tulou dwellings (Photo: Sherry Zhang)

My family immigrated to New Zealand nearly 25 years ago, and even though I got sent to Saturday Mandarin school at Sunnynook Primary School, I bombed in every class. My ability to translate mooncake recipes is thus slightly distorted.

Here’s my Aunt 小飞 Xiao Fei’s recipe for mixed nut mooncakes. The inside is not dissimilar to a bliss ball.

Unfortunately, like many family recipes, there’s a lot of eyeballing involved. And like many dishes popular with immigrant families, it’s been adapted so you can find most ingredients at the local grocery store. She’s found a video of a similar recipe, so you can eyeball the measurements too. 

right: putting the filing into the dough, centre: tightly rolled balls, left: folding them into shape

Aunt 小飞 Xiao Fei’s mooncakes

Ingredients:

Nuts of your choice (walnuts, cashews etc) 

Sesame seeds (black and white) 

Peanut oil (or vegetable oil) 

Pumpkin seeds 

Raisins 

Glutinous rice flour

Plain flour

Golden syrup (or honey) 

Sugar 

Egg 

  1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius
  2. Start by making the filling. Crush the nuts, seeds and sesame. Pour 35g hot peanut oil over it, and mix in the sweetener of your choice. We used golden syrup. Toss the glutinous rice flour in a dry hot pan, and mix in. Roll into small balls. 
  3. Then make a dough by mixing 250g plain flour, 100g of white sugar, 100g hot peanut oil, and 1 egg. Cover and let it rest in the fridge for 20 mins. Roll into small balls.
  4. Kind of like making a dumpling, fold the filling into the dough ball. Use your hand to roll it into a bigger ball. 
  5. You can get a fancy contraption to fold it into cute round shapes with a “longevity” character. Check the Asian supermarket. Otherwise squish it into a round flat pastry shape. 
  6. Pop them into the oven for 5 minutes. 
  7. Take them out and wash with egg yolk. 
  8. Put them back in for at most 10 minutes. My Ba warns, “Keep an eye on them.” Once he accidentally burnt them and his sister yelled at him, so take them out as soon as it starts to lightly brown. 

Slightly burnt mooncakes – don’t leave them too long like my Ba

My friend Daphne Zheng sent me a handwritten recipe from her mum’s Suzhou-style mooncakes. I’ve done my best to translate, however I have also attached the original recipe for those with far superior Mandarin ability than me. 

Suzhou-style mooncakes (Photo: Getty Images)

Suzhou-style mooncakes with three fillings 

  1. Preheat the oven to 210 degrees Celsius. 
  2. To make the flaky pastry, you need to make two types of dough. 
  3. Dough 1: Mix 1 cup plain flour, 4 teaspoon of cornflour and ⅓ cup of oil. 
  4. Dough 2: Mix 2 cups of flour,  ½ cup of plain flour, ½ cup of gluten flour, ⅓ cup of oil and a little warm water. 
  5. Knead each dough and roll into a separate ball. 
  6. Wrap both doughs in a tea towel and rest for 15 minutes. 
  7. Take out each dough, and cut each into 32 even pieces. 
  8. Lay pieces of dough 1 on top of dough 2, roll into long strips and zig zag fold. 
  9. Chicken Mince filling: Mix ½ kg of chicken mince with a finely chopped bunch of chives, finely chopped spring onions, bamboo, garlic as you please, a splash of soy sauce, wine, cornflour and oil.  
  10. Seed/Nut filling: Mix in a food processor: 70g of peanuts, 70g of pumpkin seeds, 70g of walnuts, 50g sesame seeds. Toss 100g of glutinous flour on a dry hot pan. Mix this in with the seed/nut mix, and add 4 tablespoons of honey and 200g of icing sugar. 
  11. Vegetable filling: Toss 1 cup of flour on a hot dry pan. Then mix this together with finely chopped seaweed, oil, seeds, walnuts, peanuts. Add sugar and salt to taste.  
  12. Fold each filling into a different dough, like you would a dumpling, and shape into little balls. 
  13. Wash with egg yolk
  14. Put chicken ones in the oven for 210 degrees for 20 mins, the sweet fillings for 10 mins
  15. Keep an eye that they don’t burn!

The recipe for Suzhou-style mooncakes in the original Mandarin (Recipe: Daphne Zheng’s mum)



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