On my train ride into Beijing yesterday, I had my first opportunity to taste a mooncake. Sitting on the lower level of beds, which during the daylight are the shared seats of everyone in the train’s cabin, I spotted a man in a neighboring cabin enjoying a small pastry. He noticed my curiosity and graciously offered me a taste.
Mooncakes, or yuè bǐng as they are known in Mandarin, are small cakes eaten to celebrate the Mid Autumn festival. Although there can be many variations, they are usually filled with a thick filling made from lotus paste or dried fruit. Sometimes, mooncakes are prepared with a duck egg yolk as part of the filling as well. This is thought by some to represent the full moon during harvest time.
There are many varieties of mooncakes to be found, so it is difficult to prescribe a standard. Today in our office we were treated to at least three different varieties in a single sitting. Each person has their own favorite. Personally, I am a fan of some of the less traditional fillings, such as dried pineapple or coconut.
However you like them, it’s good to keep their symbolism in mind. As mentioned before, mooncakes are eaten to mark the passage of the Mid Autumn festival, one of the most important holidays in China. This year is the first year that the Chinese government has made the Mid Autumn festival an official holiday and given people time off work. The origins of the holiday are shrouded in a complex mixture of legend and historical fact, but it is almost certainly meant to celebrate a successful harvest at the end of summer.
As it is a lunar holiday, the date of the Mid Autumn festival changes every year, but if you make it to China during the month of September, you have a good chance of being able to celebrate a successful harvest with us.