Happy first day of Autumn, 2021! And while we’re at it, yesterday was the Mid-Autumn Festival! If it seems a bit jarring that we’re celebrating the first day of Autumn after the Mid-Autumn festival, it might help to know that the Mid-Autumn festival is based on the traditional Chinese calendar (which is lunisolar*), whereas the first day of Autumn is determined by the fall/September equinox.
I’m going to be focusing on the Mid-Autumn Festival, but the fall equinox also sees Persephone joining Hades back in the underworld. Interestingly, it’s another couple that is celebrated/remembered during the Mid-Autumn festival too: Chang’e and Hou Yi. There are many versions of the tale – whether Chang’e did it out of selfishness, desperation, or selfless sacrifice for mankind – but it all ends in the same way: Chang’e becomes immortal and lives on the Moon**, while her husband Hou Yi is stranded on Earth as a mortal. Whether she saw no choice but to drink it when a thief came into the house to steal the elixir while Hou Yi was out (so as to prevent the thief from achieving immortality); or if she drank the immortality elixir to prevent Hou Yi (who, in one version of the tale, had let the power of being a worshipped hero go to his head and become a callous king) from becoming immortal and inflicting his cruelty on everyone for even longer; or perhaps even the selfish version where she drank the elixir in order to be raised to the Heavens (when presented with the choice of sharing the full elixir with Hou Yi and becoming immortal together on Earth, or one of them drinking all of the elixir to become a god/dess/Heavenly figure), choosing herself over her life together with Hou Yi (and in some versions regretting it as she was very lonely on the moon), it’s a whole muddle and there doesn’t seem to be one accepted version of the tale – which is perhaps just fine, since I feel like this allows this tale to contain the possibility of meaning beyond a straightforward standardized version might bring.
*Today I learned: the traditional Chinese calendar is lunisolar rather than lunar; I’d been referring to it as a lunar calendar all my life – oops.
**The Moon’s a happening place: Chang’e shares the Moon Palace with the Jade Rabbit, who pounds out immortality elixirs, and a woodcutter, Wu Gang, who is doomed to try to cut down a tree on the Moon that heals instantly (kind of like Sisyphus and his rock). Both of them are unrelated to her story and just happen to be there.
Even with mooncakes, there are a great variety of flavours and styles, including ones that don’t look at all like the mountains of boxes of mooncakes you might see in stores: Shanghai Savoury Mooncakes, for example. I tried them for the first time this year, and quite like them! They remind me a bit of the husband/wife pastry (different filling, but the pastry itself – ditto for suncake). The use of two different doughs to make the flaky pastry is ingenious: instead of just enveloping a fat into the dough (as with lamination, e.g. in croissants), you make a lard/butter/fat dough and a water dough and do folds & roll it up for the layers to make the flakiness. This also avoids the whole butter melting out issue you get when you make croissants!
In addition to these, there are the more popular Cantonese lotus seed paste mooncakes with salted egg yolk and/or various other fillings (e.g. mixed nuts) baked into the pastry, both of which you will more likely recognize, along with a style of mooncake that isn’t baked at all: snow skin mooncakes, apparently hailing from Hong Kong. And there’s an interesting bit of revolutionary history behind mooncakes as well: they were used to hide secret messages to incite an uprising during the time of Mongol rule, the leader of this rebellion establishing the Ming dynasty shortly afterwards. (This political bent experienced a bit of a revival in the form of subversive messages stamped onto the mooncakes in Hong Kong back in 2019 and 2020.)
If you’d like to make your own, there are plenty of tutorials online that show you each of the steps, including one with a baklava-inspired filling, available on New York Times Cooking. There’s also a recipe at the back of the book at the very top of this post, The Shadow in the Moon, that families can follow to make their own mooncakes. For Suzhou mooncakes (like the savoury mooncakes I linked above), there’s a recipe in My Shanghai by Betty Liu, which is also available on Overdrive, or on NYT Cooking (you’ll need to be a subscriber to access this one). And for more Chinese cooking inspiration and to learn more about the incredibly varied regions in the country, check out Beyond the Great Wall (also available on Overdrive), which explores the great expanse of culinary traditions outside of the more well known urban centers; My Grandmother’s Chinese Kitchen by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, part memoir, part cookbook; and Xi’an Famous Foods by Jason Wang and Jessica Chou, focusing on Western Chinese cuisine, also part memoir, part cookbook, with lots of information about this particular culinary region. For more Chinese cookbooks, check out our catalogue!
Have you ever made mooncakes before? They seem a bit labour-intensive, but I’ve definitely put in more time and effort into croissants, cakes and other baked goods, and with each of the steps broken down in the online tutorials, it’s starting to seem quite approachable! Do you celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival? What’s your favourite style of mooncake?
And if you’re more interested in the folklore, check out these Chinese folktales: