Mooncake / Mid-Autumn Festival

November 12, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Once when I visited my American acquaintance Steve Sullivan’s family, I was quite amused but pleasantly surprised to see him with a glass or red wine in one hand and a small piece of red bean paste mooncake (Guek Peah) in the other.

Steve had found out about the Mooncake Festival and actually went out and bought some to eat. I had not seen many Westerners sampling this Asian once-a-year sweet treat, so I asked him what he thought of it. He said it was alright, and he rather liked it, plus it went well with the wine.

The Mooncake Festival, as it is popularly known in Malaysia, is the Mid-Autumn Festival, a harvest festival celebrated by the Chinese during the 8th month in the lunar calendar. According to some students from China whom I taught English some years back, the Mid-Autumn Festival, on the 15th day of the 8th month, is the second most important celebration in China (the most important is of course the Chinese New Year) where family members try to make it back to their hometowns to be with the clan.

Mooncake in a decorative box

In Malaysia, things are a little bit more low-key; the festival isn’t a public holiday, but we all buy mooncakes for ourselves, relatives and friends. Business associates also make gifts out of these little delicacies but to my young charges from China, it was a really important celebration, and that year it was a very poignant one for them as they were living away from their families for the first time.

I wouldn’t have made this significant discovery if not for my mother who had bought mooncakes for my students. It was the simple ones we liked with bean and lotus seed paste, but you should have seen the expressions on their faces when I told them the mooncakes were from my mother. The mooncakes were a totally unexpected surprise and they were happy and excited but there was something deeper that I didn’t quite understand.

They repeatedly asked me not to forget to tell my mother they said thank you, and finally one girl who spoke better English came up to me and explained how they all felt and why, and how my mother’s little gesture had touched them all. In fact, some of them looked close to tears, but were smiling as a mother had remembered them and bought them mooncakes just as they were thinking of their mothers and missing them.

Mooncake

Therefore it was imperative that I had to remember to tell my mother that they each said “Thank you, Teacher’s Mother”, and you know what? They actually came up to her and thanked her personally when they saw that she had come to pick me up several days later.

The mooncakes used to be sold at the start of the 8th month at the older Chinese tea restaurants, renowned for making dim sum, or at some traditional Chinese bakeries but nowadays mooncakes have become very commercialised and big business, so you can find them everywhere, even at the supermarkets and shopping malls. Not only that, some places even start selling the mooncakes as early as one month to six weeks before the actual festival.

I have no idea why the cakes are called mooncakes but it could be because of the time of the festival, or the fact that the cakes are round like the moon, but there are several stories associated with this festival. The most popular is that of Chang’e, the Moon Goddess who became immortal when she accidentally swallowed a pill of immortality and floated up to the moon. She stays there with a little white rabbit who is said to be pounding herbs trying to make another pill so that Chang’e can return to Earth and be reunited with her husband, Houyi, a renowned archer.

Another is about Chinese rebel leaders putting messages containing instructions and the time of the uprising against the Mongols (Yuan Dynasty) in 14th-century China. The plan worked and this led to the start of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and the Mid-Autumn festival was celebrated with mooncakes from then on.

Having mentioned mooncakes so many times, I have to say…what exactly are they? They are not cakes in the western sense of the word. Rather, they are more of a confectionary, being mostly thick filling of sweet red, black bean or lotus seed paste, with a very thin layer of crumbly dough to “wrap” the whole cake, which is then baked to a delectable caramel brown.

Mooncake cut

There are so many varieties of mooncakes nowadays, apart from the traditional red bean, lotus paste and mixed nuts fillings; one can easily find chocolate, coconut, pandan, green tea, durian and even ice-cream mooncakes! Mooncakes used to be baked but now there are jelly-like ones that need to be refrigerated and the skin is usually pink, white, yellow or green. These are best eaten chilled.

How does one enjoy the mooncake? Easy. Just cut the cake up, into half, quarters, or even smaller 1/8 pieces and take little bites as the filling is rather thick, slightly sticky and sweet.

There is another kind of mooncake but it does not have the thick paste. It is called the Ang Koe Ngah Peah (Doll Biscuits) because they used to be made in shape of cute little piglets and fish, although its basic shape is just like that of a cookie. It looks like a cookie, it is crumbly like a cookie, but one should not take big bites as this cookie-like treat gets extremely sticky in the mouth. It is made of the dough of the mooncake outer layer.

Ang Koe Ngah Peah is not as sweet as the Guek Peah (mooncakes) as it traditionally does not have any filling but nowadays it is available with red bean paste or coconut filling. Smaller and cuter than the mooncake, it takes between three to four bites to finish one piece.

Mooncakes are a very Asian thing, and if one isn’t from this part of the world, it may not be your kind of thing, BUT, if you’re game enough, like Steve, you might just find discover a sweet treat that’s not so very easy to get. So, if you’re here in Penang, or Malaysia, anytime from July to September, I’d say, “GO For It!”

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