The Mid-Autumn Festival, which marks the end of the harvest season, is an important celebration for the Chinese, along with Chinese New Year and Winter Solstice.
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Most celebrations in Malaysia are associated with a particular food, such as bubur lambuk during the Muslim Ramadan month and the milk rice of the Hindu Ponggal festival. Other festivals, such as Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Chinese New Year, have their own delicacies. But the one celebration in Malaysia that really focuses on food is the Mid-Autumn Festival, traditionally celebrated on the 15th night of the eighth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. A traditional confectionery known as the mooncake is prevalent at this festival. As the festival approaches, pastry shops, bakeries and Chinese specialty restaurants are proud to display their latest variations of mooncake in a multitude of taste and colours to the public.
Many legends are associated with this festival. One of the more famous legends says that during the Yuan dynasty in the 14th century, China was ruled by the Mongolians. The Chinese people were in the midst of planning an insurgence, but since public gatherings were forbidden, they had to find another way of passing the message without raising suspicion. Under the guise of promoting goodwill for the Mongol emperor, the leader of the rebellion sought permission to distribute the mooncakes to the people of China with a message embedded within the cakes to overthrow the emperor on the 15th night of the eight month. What followed was a successful attack which saw the establishment of the Ming dynasty.
Another famous legend is about the Moon Goddess, Chang-Er and how she came to be on the moon. Chang-Er was wife to a expert archer, Hou-Yi. Hou-Yi was tasked with shooting down 9 of the 10 suns that were burning up the earth by an emperor. The emperor, pleased with Hou-Yi's success, presented him with an elixir of life. As he gained fame Hou-Yi grew into a tyrant who began to crave immortality. Chang-Er swallowed the elixir of life to prevent him from achieving his evil ways. The elixir made her so light that she was able to float to the moon. There are many adaptations of this legend, some painting Chang-Er and Hou-Yi as immortals who were banished to earth and mortality. Other versions of the story said that after Hou-Yi saved the earth from a fiery end, he was made the king and thus began his desire to be an immortal. It was said that he either stole the pill of immortality from the Queen Mother of the West or by made it from grinding the bones of young males every night for 100 nights. Chang-Er stole and swallowed the pill so that her husband's evil intents would end. There is also a tale of a rabbit who sacrificed his own life when three fairies, disguised as old beggars, approached it for food. Finding it had none on itself, the rabbit jumped into the fire so that it could offer its own flesh to them. Touched by its selflessness, the fairies allowed the rabbit to stay at the Moon Palace, where it became the 'Jade Rabbit'. Till this day, the design on mooncakes often depicts a woman with a rabbit or the rabbit alone.
The mooncake itself has gone through lots of changes through the passage of time. In the early days, the mooncake's filling was normally made out of red bean paste or lotus seed paste. Some of the mooncakes also have either single or double salted duck egg yolk within them. Mooncakes with melon or lotus seed filling are also available to those who prefer the original flavour. Recent years have seen a fusion of the old and the more contemporary taste, most probably done to attract the younger crowd. There are mooncakes with fillings of ice cream, tiramisu, a combination of coffee and chocolate, a mixture of nuts and chicken bits and even sambal chilli paste. Some confectioneries have taken to changing the flavour of the crust, incorporating flavours like chocolate or yam, giving a delicacy made famous by a legend a new twist and appearance.