Some people wolf them down. Others abhor their wicked richness. Love or hate them, mooncakes are back in the shops as the Mid-Autumn Festival draws nigh.
It’s a billion-yuan business every year. Mooncakes comes in a myriad of varieties and prices. They are traditional gifts for family, friends and business associates.
You need only look at the lines formed outside popular places to buy mooncakes, like the Guangmingcun Restaurant and the Jing’an Temple, to see that business is booming this year despite China’s economic slowdown.
So why the mania surrounding this enduring confection?
The evolution of mooncakes
Tradition weighs heavily on the popular Mid-Autumn Festival, which this year falls on September 27. They have been part of the moon-worshipping holiday for more than 3,000 years, becoming as ingrained as decorated trees at Christmas.
As millennia passed, mooncakes have evolved with changing public tastes.
In the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960-1127), mooncakes were called xiao bing, which translates into “small cake or pastry.” The famous poet Su Shi once wrote that “eating xiao bing is like biting into the moon, crisp on the outside and sweet on the inside.”
The name “mooncake” didn’t appear until the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279).
Today mooncakes vary according to regions of China. There are the Beijing, Suzhou and Cantonese styles. The latter two styles are perhaps the best known in Shanghai.
The Suzhou mooncake has a layered, flaky puff pastry crust, while the Cantonese style has a thin, chewy and glossy crust. The fillings can be either sweet or savory.
The Beijing-style mooncake, on the other hand, is not so easily found in Shanghai. It comes in two traditional varieties: zi lai hong (light brown) and zi lai bai (white). Color aside, the two are made differently. Boiling hot water is used to make the crust for zi lai hong, while cold water is used for zi lai bai.
The Beijing mooncakes have a strong sesame oil taste and are sometimes as hard as rocks, with excessively sweet fillings of rock sugar, nuts and candied fruits. Sometimes people joke that Beijing mooncakes are not food but weapons.
Mooncakes are sometimes baked in gigantic sizes to help generate spirit around the Mid-Autumn Festival, which celebrates the harvest moon. In 2013, a 2.5-ton mooncake with lotus seed paste filling was unveiled in Shanghai. This largest mooncake ever made had a diameter of 2.57 meters and was created by 15 chefs.
Today’s mooncakes reflect modern tastes. There is an ice cream mooncake made by Haagen-Dazs and a Godiva chocolate mooncake that is a soft cake layered with chocolate ganache and nuts. These mooncakes are lighter and tend to attract people who prefer their desserts less rich and heavy.
Another variety, snowy mooncakes, has been around for about two decades. The crust is made of glutinous rice flour and requires no baking. It’s also a popular mooncake to DIY at home. Chilled snowy mooncakes are not as greasy and sweet as traditional ones and often are made with more nutritious fillings like yam, chestnuts or taro.
Dessert franchise Tangpin is offering as its special this year a gift box with eight pieces of snowy mooncake made with four different kinds of Malaysian durian.
Hidden skeletons – a nutritional nightmare
With today’s accent on healthy eating, the mooncake is much maligned because of its high calorie, fat and sugar content. Not auspicious for a healthy heart.
A 100-gram Cantonese mooncake has roughly 400 calories, compared with only 115 calories for an equal weight of steamed rice.
Mooncakes made with egg yolks are also high in cholesterol. A lotus seed paste mooncake with two salty yolks is the equivalent of eating four plain egg yolks because the salting process doubles the cholesterol level.
The crust of a Cantonese mooncake is made with flour and large amount of inverted sugar syrup.
Those eating rich mooncakes are advised to reduce the meat and carbohydrates in other dishes served during family festival gatherings.
The Suzhou-style pork mooncake has a relatively healthy filling of minced meat, but the crust is still made with flour and lard.
Vegetarian restaurants and Buddhist temples in Shanghai sell vegan mooncakes. Instead of lard, they are made with plant oil and have fillings of red bean paste, sesame seeds, lotus seeds or even unsweetened ingredients like seaweed for diabetes sufferers.
Sweet mooncakes are best eaten with black or oolong tea to ease the greasiness.
The controversy over gift-packaging
As Mid-Autumn Festival gifts, mooncakes come in packaging ranging from simple tins to extravagant boxes.
Luxury gift boxes can cost up to 1,000 yuan (US$159) or more. These mooncakes are filled with exotic ingredients like abalones and truffles. Some pricy gift boxes also contain gifts of wine and tea.
The rise of gaudy packaging has stirred public debate over the years. Some people complain that such extravagance is too commercialized and defiles the true meaning of the Mid-Autumn Festival.
These gift boxes are sometimes not even opened by recipients. Many just give them away as gifts to other people. It’s possible to find yourself holding the same mooncake gift box that you just gave a friend a week earlier.
Environmentalists complain that all the packaging embellishments are a huge waste of natural resources in an age where going green is the watchword.
A decade ago, when mooncake packaging seemed to go over the top, the central government stepped in to regulate the trade.
Among other rules, it said the packaging cost shouldn’t be more than 25 percent of the factory price.
With the more recent government edicts against ostentatious gift-giving, mooncake gift boxes have become more practical and even recyclable. The St Regis Hotel in Tianjin is offering a mooncake gift box with six mooncakes inside a leather tissue box.
Prices of mooncakes, even the elaborately boxed ones, have been dropping. Nowadays, one can buy a small box of mooncakes from a five-star hotel for less than 300 yuan.