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The Mooncake Is East Asia’s Answer to Holiday Fruitcake

Made with lotus bean paste and a salted egg yolk centre to represent the moon in its finest hour, mooncakes are traditionally shared as part of East Asia’s Mid-Autumn festival.
September 25, 2015, 10:00am
Photo courtesy Yauatch Hakkasan.

At around this time every year, my family stocks up on mooncakes in the same way Brits panic-buy bread and milk at the first sign of winter snow. Piles of the intricately decorated cakes in their trademark gold, blue, and red tins are exchanged like an endless game of pass-the-parcel, except without a final, wrapping paper-shrouded prize.

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Mooncakes in traditional packaging. Photo by the author.

If you're wondering what in the world a mooncake actually is, I can assure you it's not the slang term for some weird Asian drug. Mooncakes are small cakes traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn festival, an ancient harvest festival that dates back over 3500 years and is traditionally held on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese Han calendar. This year, the festival falls on 27 September and on this night, the moon is at its fullest and brightest.

Personally, I don't care for mooncakes' overly dry texture and dense consistency. Eating them has always reminded me of sweet cat litter mashed with PVA glue.

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But the making and sharing of mooncakes is a Mid-Autumn festival hallmark, with the circular cakes symbolising unity, family reunions, and a way of thanking the gods for a good harvest. Basically, it's East Asia's answer to Thanksgiving.

Mooncakes are traditionally made with lotus bean paste and a salted egg yolk centre to represent the moon in its finest hour. But being the attention span-lacking millennials that we are, we're no longer satisfied with single flavour combinations. In recent years, Asian bakeries have introduced ever more crazy varieties of mooncake, from double yolkers to lavish, gold-encrusted cakes stuffed with sharks' fins that sell for more than $1000.

Mooncakes symbolise unity, family reunions, and a way of thanking the gods for a good harvest. Basically, it's East Asia's answer to Thanksgiving.

But such twists on the traditional cake isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"Society is developing now and customers want to try different flavours," says Tong Chee Hwee, executive head chef at London's Hakkasan restaurant. "You can still can get the traditional mooncakes from the market."

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Executive pastry chef at The Shard's Shangri-La Hotel Ryan Thompson agrees.

"Adjustments to flavours happen in all markets and I believe this is normal practice to capture the local palette," he says. "We've created mooncakes with a more European flavour while respecting the tradition and appearance of the traditional Mooncake."

If you're feeling tempted by the traditional mooncake, you might want to keep in mind that these hockey puck pastries contain over 1000 calories per cake and eating too many could land you in hospital.

Shangri-La-Hotel-Mooncakes

Mooncakes. Photo courtesy Shangri-La Hotel.

Despite these artery-clogging qualities, mooncake business is booming. Industry groups estimate that the dessert brings in $2 billion in annual sales in greater China, accounting for 200,000 metric tons (about 220,400 tons) of production each season. With numbers as great as these, it's no wonder marketers are working to push interest in mooncakes beyond the Chinese market, broadcasting celebrity-studded campaigns and offering new ranges of non-traditional flavours to Western buyers.

Thompson says this new marketing push has driven an awareness of the cake outside Asia.

"Amongst our guests, both Chinese and residents in London, mooncakes are certainly popular as they are part of their culture, with more businesses and individuals in the UK dealing with China and Asia at large," he says.

But with 90 percent of mooncakes bought to be given as gifts, this increased production may also mean increased food waste. Hong Kong alone threw out more than 1 million mooncake boxes and over 1.5 million mooncakes in 2013. That's just one country and in one season.

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Aside from the environmental issues, there have been hidden bomb scares and bribery and corruption charges linked to mooncakes. Could the rising popularity of the sweet, pork pie lookalikes outside of Asia be further dilution of the festival's original values?

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Photo courtesy Hakkasan restaurant.

"I think there are more people and businesses celebrating this festival in a number of ways and some people like to spend more money on it," says Chee Hwee. "Society is developing very fast and people are always expecting more. Companies creating the moon cakes have to satisfy these needs which is why the moon cake industry is changing each year."

Just like the fruitcake of Western holiday traditions, I'm convinced nobody actually enjoys eating mooncakes. This cake-giving ritual is all for show, as well as being a convenient excuse to fatten up for winter.

A bit like the real Thanksgiving, if you ask me.