In the mood for moon

by Blue Lam, Nov 24, 2001 | Destinations: Hong Kong / China

All over the world, Chinese families get together to celebrate the beauty of the brightest object in the night sky - the full moon - in the Mid-Autumn Festival. To the Chinese, the full moon is a symbol of reunion and harmony, and the Festival is thus dedicated to spending a beautiful evening with loved ones.

Arguably, the Mid-Autumn Festival (also known as the Mooncake Festival) is the second most popular Chinese festivity after the Lunar New Year. On this night, the 15th of the eighth month in the lunar calendar, the moon shines brightest and fullest, bathing the surroundings in a romantic silvery light.

Families gather under the silver moonlight to enjoy a slice of the pastry of choice - the mooncake, and wash it down with fragrant Chinese tea. Kids indulge in general merriment with siblings, cousins, neighbours and friends while running around with exquisitely designed lanterns. These lanterns range from traditional paper cylinders to battery-operated ones that belt out cute tunes. Whether Pokemon, Powerpuff Girls or paper lanterns will win the war of the lanterns remain anybody's guess.

The fun practice of carrying lanterns around probably originated from the fact that people of old had to use these lanterns to illuminate their way when they paid visits to each other or to frolic under the moon.

The star of the festival - mooncakes

It may surprise you to know that the most popular practice of this festival of harmony - eating mooncakes - actually has an origin in violence. During the 14th century, Chinese rebels inserted secret messages in local cakes (shaped like the full moon) about an impeding uprising against the Yuan regime. The note read, "revolt on the fifteenth of the eighth moon". It was a perfect foil as these mooncakes and messages were delivered from one household to another under the cover of gift giving. The invaders were overthrown, and this practice of mooncake exchange continues today.

Cake of many flavours

The mooncake is traditionally baked with a lotus seed paste filling and salted duck egg yolk (symbolising the round moon). The pastry has a golden brown exterior that is firm to the bite. However, pastry makers have been putting twists to tradition by constantly coming up with new recipes to tease taste buds. Fresh flavours debut almost every year as competitors fight for their share of this lucrative market.

Some variants, like the snowskin mooncakes, have even made it into the most popular flavours. The snowskin varieties are not baked. Instead, the exterior is comprised of a soft, green and mildly sweet skin. These mooncakes are eaten cold, as they have to be refrigerated for freshness.

Other more exotic flavours include:

Ice-cream Mooncakes

What it is: Instead of a solid filling, well-known ice cream makers like Swenson's and Haagen-Dazs have stuffed the soft-skin pastry with delicious ice cream! The incredible flavours include chocolate and strawberry for the sweet-toothed, with durian and cempedak (both local fruits) for a familiar tropical flavour. This is definitely an excellent combination of tradition and modern tastes.

Green Tea Mooncakes

What it is: Those who find traditional mooncakes too sweet will take to the gentle flavour of green tea mooncakes. Think green tea ice cream wrapped in a soft skin and you will get what I mean. The gentle fragrance of green tea fills the snowskin, giving the mooncakes a very refreshing taste.

Low fat / low sugar Mooncakes

What it is: Like many other Chinese festivals, the Mid-Autumn festival is a time for feasting. To spare customers the guilt of indulgence, the White Lotus Seed Paste range is created. Low in sugar, fats and calories, this will appeal to the health-conscious. Some shops even top each piece of mooncake with an edible gold flake leaf to usher in wealth, happiness and longevity for the eater.

Mooncakes are prominently displayed for sale from the middle of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, which falls usually in August.

The toast of the night - Chinese tea

Chinese tea is the best accompaniment to the rich tastes of mooncakes. And for good reasons too. The lightly fragrant tea removes the greasy feel and queasiness of having too much of the rich pastry. And it aids digestion too. At any rate, the tea is a marvellous beverage that can be brewed with skill and sipped in enjoyment.

Singaporeans are spoilt for choices when it comes to picking a Chinese tea variety to go with their mooncakes. Personal preferences are usually adhered to because there are generally no rules specifying the kinds of tea to partner specific mooncake flavours. Most Chinese teas will go well with traditional mooncakes.

To maximise your pleasure of tea drinking, here are a few choices that can add that little bit more "oomph".

Pu Er: this strong-flavoured variety is well sought after because of its ability to reduce queasiness. However, Pu Er will clash in taste with equally strong-flavoured mooncakes such as durian.

Wu Long: this commonly found variety is very compatible with traditional mooncakes with lotus seed paste or bean paste fillings.

Flower Teas: these include jasmine, rose and cinnamon Chinese teas where petals or whole buds are added into both red and green teas. However, some flower teas may be so powerfully fragrant that it will overpower the pastries' flavour. Hence, these teas taste best when enjoyed on their own in your tête-à-tête after you are done with mooncake eating.