Celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival
’Tis that time of the year again when trees are adorned with crisp orangey hues and a light breeze makes its way between branches to create a rustling tune. October first marks this year’s harvest festival, also known as Mid-Autumn Festival, Mooncake Festival and Chuseok across East Asia, which falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. Celebrations on harvest day can be found in many cultures and embedded in many different folklores.
When I was learning about Korean culture, I was really looking forward to try the songpyeon rice cake. Filled with cinnamon, walnut, chestnut, sesame seeds, beans and honey, I was amazed by the use of pine needles in cooking these rice cakes, which gives them their aromatic smell and taste. I learned from a friend that the songpyeon skin is kneaded into the shape of a full moon that becomes a half-moon once it is filled with stuffing. Korean families gather together to make these rice cakes, which is similar to the Chinese tradition of familial reunion on Mid-Autumn Festival, or Chuseok in Korea.
From what I remember growing up, the most common story of how the festival came to be belongs to the Chinese version featuring Hou Yi 后羿 and Chang’e 嫦娥. Legend has it that in ancient Chia, there were ten suns in the sky, making it too hot for people to live and causing crops to wither. Hou Yi is a skilled marksman who volunteered to save his fellow people. He shot down nine of the suns and as a reward for his bravery, was rewarded a magical elixir by the Queen of Heaven.
This elixir could grant him immortal life, but because of his love for his wife, Chang’e, Hou Yi didn’t drink it. However, Chang’e’s curiosity got the best of her and she drank the immortality — granting elixir. As a result, she flew to the moon and became a deity. She also became friends with the Jade Rabbit on the moon! In some Chinese cultures, people also pray to Chang’e for fortune every year on Mid-Autumn Festival.
Being Thai-Chinese, we celebrate Mid-Autumn’s day with a table of good food and dessert! However different from the usual cakes and white fungus with ginko soup, the sweetness of Mid-Autumn Festival comes from mooncakes! Eating mooncakes after dinner on Mid-Autumn Festival is a great way for families to come together and enjoy each others’ company. The roundness of the mooncake and the roundness of the full moon signify reunion — a whole circle.
Talking about mooncakes, most people have probably heard of the traditional baked lotus seed paste mooncake with one or two whole salted duck egg yolks. This sweet and savory mooncake is covered in a thin and beautifully — roasted chestnut — colored skin. Nothing goes better with this mooncake then a cup freshly boiled black Pu’er tea. Of course, green tea or yellow tea suits it as well!
Baked mooncakes also come in different flavors and varieties depending on which region they originate from. Some parts of China prefer fried mooncakes filled with silky taro paste while the Yunnan province uses roses or ham for the filling. Watermelon seeds, sesame seed paste and durian are all popular flavors! Apart from baked mooncakes, I also love unbaked snow skin mooncakes made from a mochi skin with a whole variety of different fillings. My favorite fillings include red bean, mung bean, chocolate, durian, mangosteen, cranberry cheese and ice cream!
I never cease to be surprised at how elements of one culture are spread across a region and become assimilated into the local culture. In Thailand where we have a heavy influence from Chinese culture, people look forward to these festivals to celebrate the togetherness of family and friends. Stores in Bangkok start selling mooncakes a month before the festival and Chinese restaurants often get fully-booked for dinner. I also remember running around with lanterns and playing word games when I was little!
There is a saying in Chinese that goes, “No matter where you are, we are all under the same moon”. After a few long months of social distancing, perhaps reunion time on Mooncake Festival will be a great way to reconnect with loved ones, even if it’s over the phone, and to indulge in the sweetness of mooncakes or songpyeons.