This mooncake guide in honor of the Harvest Moon Festival on October 1, 2020 covers what they are, why they matter, and whether it’s worth making your own (with mooncake recipes if you want to try it and the best brands of mooncakes to buy if you’d rather do that).
I came to know mooncakes quite by accident, when I found myself needing to grab a souvenir on my way home from the Beijing airport in March 2019. (Back in days past when travel existed.) The pictures on the box of pastries I grabbed showed what I imagined to be some sort of teacakes, delicately branded with an intricate design. The label was unreadable to me, but they were edible and attractive, and in many moments of life that is quite enough for me to justify a purchase. The pastries turned out to be quite rich—a dense filling outlined with a delicate pastry crust, lightly sweet, and a little savory.
Fast forward to now, when I volunteered for a write-up about something called mooncakes. When I began the research into the Harvest Moon Festival and its attendant sweet treats known as mooncakes I thought, “Wait a minute. Those seem really familiar…”
But you don’t have to wait for fate’s random intervention for your introduction to mooncakes. Get to know the ins and outs of these special, seasonal treats just in time for 2020’s Harvest Moon on October 1.
Wing Wah Mooncake, $69.98 on Amazon
These mooncakes are a favorite of pastry chef Rebecca Li.
The When of Mooncakes: The Harvest Moon Festival or Mid-Autumn Festival
Just to be clear, the Chinese zodiac—that which is responsible for Lunar New Year and for 2020 being the Year of the Rat—has no actual influence over the calendar which governs the Harvest Moon Festival. Jeffrey L. Wong is a New York resident who grew up with mooncakes, in both China as a child and in New York as a teenager, as the son of a baker who worked for commercial bakeries in both places. “Many people use the terms ‘Chinese Calendar’ or ‘Lunar Calendar, but they are both inaccurate,” says Wong, “since the Agricultural Calendar is based on observing a combination of solar and lunar cycles for agricultural purposes to make planting and harvesting decisions.” The Harvest Moon always falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of this calendar, so is a moving target every year, but always centers around the year’s brightest full moon. Hence, mooncakes!
The Harvest Moon Festival, also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival for obvious reasons, is not just a Chinese holiday, but is also celebrated by Vietnamese and Korean communities worldwide; in Vietnam, it’s also called the Children’s Festival, while the Korean holiday name is Chuseok (Autumn Eve, though it’s also known as Korean Thanksgiving). They’re all celebrated on the same day, as is Japan’s Tsukimi (Moon-Viewing), and similar variants in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia (where the occasion is called the Lantern Festival).
Related Reading: Everything You Need to Know Abut Chuseok, Korean Thanksgiving
The What of Mooncakes: Poetic & Complex
So, what exactly are mooncakes? Rebecca Li, a Chinese-American pastry chef at Supermoon Bakehouse (not a mooncake bakery, sadly, but another good coincidence), explains: “The mooncake is much heavier than it looks and is about palm size. The three traditional flavors are lotus seed paste, (red) bean paste, and a mix of nuts and seeds called ‘five nut’. There is often a salted egg yolk (or two) in the center to signify the moon.”
Wong offers a preference for the eggless varieties, however poetic the eggs themselves are, “because egg yolks are cheaper than the paste material, and take up more space.” Also modern or Western fillings can sometimes be found, such as “chocolate, peanut butter, and even ice cream,” says Wong, “though they may not stand up to the test of time.”
In the spirit of keeping it traditional for your first exploration into mooncakes, how does one choose between the three major varieties? Li continues: “The mouthfeel of the lotus seed paste is dense, smooth, sweet and melts slowly on the palette. Red bean is similar but just a tad grittier. Five nut is super grainy, almost like granola with copious amounts of seeds and nuts packed together with a glucose syrup.”
And then there’s the signature imprinted crust. “All these fillings are encased with a soft cookie crust,” adds Li, “usually with the mooncake company’s name, the word ‘longevity,’ depictions of flowers, Chang’e—the goddess of longevity—the moon, or rabbits imprinted onto the top.”
So really, they’re not technical or difficult or complex at all.
The How of Mooncakes: Not for the Novice Baker
If somehow the above description has you feeling like taking on the challenge of making some mooncakes? Both Li and Wong offer gentle, albeit cautionary encouragement. “Last year, I made mooncakes for the first time,” says Li. “It was difficult as a Chinese-American searching for recipes I could understand. But after piecing together a few different videos by YouTubers overseas, I was somewhat able to figure it out. I was advised by many people not to make them as they are very time consuming. That being said, typically, people don’t usually make them at home! They are definitely considered luxury items and are often used as gifts.”
6-Piece Mooncake Mold, $8.99 on Amazon
Want to make your own mooncakes? You're gonna need a mold.
Wong’s experience from his father echoes the degree of difficulty and cautions against cutting corners: “If you’re making (the filling) from scratch, you need to stir fry and re-stir fry the ingredients until they take a dark brown color, especially with lotus seed paste.” Light-colored fillings are a sure sign of laziness on the part of the bakery, according to Wong, but this is also what contributes to the difficulty. “Depending on the quantity,” he adds, “stir frying the fillings can be quite a physical workout as it is usually quite heavy.”
By contrast, the dough itself requires a balance between delicacy and strength. “The thin dough crust is also where the difficulty comes in,” says Wong. “Only skilled hands can make them thin yet strong enough to hold the usually heavy fillings.”
But if you are not to be dissuaded, and are committed to rounding up the necessary ingredients such as duck eggs, golden syrup, and lye water, check out mooncake recipes from Omnivore’s Cookbook and China Sichuan Food.
As for me, I’m on my own quest for more mooncakes armed with this treasure hunt from Wong’s father: “My dad actually recommends an unnamed brand of the Lotus Seed Paste Mooncakes we usually purchase from Hong Kong Supermarket at the corner of Hester and Elizabeth St. of New York’s Chinatown. They come in red square metal boxes, with small yellow labels similar size to fortune-cookie labels, stating either “單黃蓮蓉“ (Single Yolk Lotus Seed Paste) or “雙黃蓮蓉” (Double Yolk Lotus Seed Paste). However if you are lucky to find the ones labeled “純正蓮蓉” (Authentic Lotus Seed Paste, meaning pure paste w/o yolks) that would be the best.”
We’ll see if my luck holds up. No matter how you acquire your mooncakes, enjoy them with tea, with family, and with meditations inspired by the year’s brightest moon.
Header image courtesy of Wong Sze Fei / EyeEm / Getty Images