are Chinese pastry
traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival
. Typical mooncakes are round or rectangular pastries, measuring about 10 cm in diameter and 4-5 cm thick. A thick filling usually made from lotus seed paste
is surrounded by a relatively thin (2-3 mm) crust and may contain yolks
from salted duck eggs
. Mooncakes are rich, heavy, and dense
compared with most Western cakes and pastries. They are usually eaten in small wedges accompanied by Chinese tea
Most mooncakes consist of a thin tender skin enveloping a sweet, dense filling. The mooncake may contain one or more whole salted egg yolks in its center to symbolize the full moon. Very rarely, mooncakes are also served steamed or fried.
Traditional mooncakes have an imprint on top consisting of the Chinese characters for "longevity" or "harmony" as well as the name of the bakery and filling in the moon cake. Imprints of a moon, a woman on the moon, flowers, vines, or a rabbit may surround the characters for additional decoration.
Mooncakes are considered a delicacy; production is labor-intensive and few people make them at home. Most mooncakes are bought at Asian markets and bakeries. The price of mooncakes range from $10 to $50 (in US dollars).
Many types of fillings can be found in traditional mooncakes according to the region's culture:
- Lotus seed paste (蓮蓉, lían róng): Considered by some to be the original and most luxurious mooncake filling, lotus paste filling is found in all types of mooncakes. Due to the high price of lotus paste, white kidney bean paste is sometimes used as a filler.
- Sweet bean paste (豆沙, dòu shā): A number of pastes are common fillings found in Chinese desserts. Although red bean paste, made from azuki beans, is the most common worldwide, there are regional and original preferences for bean paste made from Mung bean as well as black bean known throughout history.
- Jujube paste (棗泥, zǎo ní): A sweet paste made from the ripe fruits of the jujube (date) plant. The paste is dark red in colour, a little fruity/smoky in flavour and slightly sour in taste. Depending on the quality of the paste, jujube paste may be confused with red bean paste, which is sometimes used as a filler.
- Five kernel (五仁, wǔ rén): A filling consisting of 5 types of nuts and seeds, coarsely chopped and held together with maltose syrup. Commonly used nuts and seeds include: walnuts, pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds, peanuts, sesame, or almonds. In addition, the mixture will usually contain candied winter melon, jinhua ham, or pieces of rock sugar as additional flavouring.
- Taro Paste (芋泥, yù ní): A sweet paste made from taro, a tuber grown in many part of tropical Asia. The colour of the paste in the mooncake is purple and is most commonly used in Teochew crusty mooncakes.
Traditional mooncake vary widely depending on the region where the mooncake is produced. While most regions produce traditional mooncakes with many types of fillings, they usually only make their mooncake from one type of crust or another. Although vegetarian
mooncakes may use vegetable oil
, many mooncakes use lard
in their recipes for a better taste. There are three types of mooncake crust used in Chinese cuisine:
- Chewy: This crust has a reddish-brown tone and glossy sheen. It is the most common type of crust used on Cantonese-style mooncakes. It is also the most commonly seen type of mooncake in North America and many western countries. Chewy mooncake crusts are made using a combination of thick sugar syrup, lye water, flour, and oil, thus giving this crust its rich taste and a chewy yet tender texture. Chewiness can be increased further by adding maltose syrup to the mixture.
- The dough is also baked into fish or piglet shapes (Cantonese: "Jue Zai Bang"; 豬仔餅; lit. "Piglet Biscuits") and sold at mooncake bakeries as a chewy snack. They often come individually packaged in small plastic baskets, to symbolize fish being caught or piglets being bound for sale.
- Flaky: Flaky crusts are most indicative of Suzhou-style mooncakes. The dough is made by rolling together alternating layers of oily dough and flour that has been stir-fried in oil. This crust has a very similar texture to the likes of puff pastry.
- Tender: Mooncakes from certain provinces of China and Taiwan are often made to be tender rather than flaky or chewy. The texture of this type of mooncake crust is similar to the likes of the shortcrust pastry used in Western pie crusts or tart shells. Tender crusts are made mainly of a homogenous mix of sugar, oil, flour, and water. This type of crust is also commonly used in other type of Chinese pastries, such as the egg tart.
There are many regional variants of the mooncake. Types of traditional mooncakes include:
- Cantonese-style mooncake: The Cantonese style mooncake is the most commonly seen throughout China and overseas. Originating from Guangdong province, the Cantonese style mooncake has up to 200 variations . The ingredients used for the fillings are various: lotus seed paste, melon seed paste, ham, chicken, duck, roast pork, mushrooms, egg yolks, etc. More elaborate versions contain four egg yolks, representing the four phases of the moon.
- Suzhou-style mooncake:: This style began more than a thousand years ago, and is known for its layers of flaky dough and generous allotment of sugar and lard. Within this regional type, there are more than a dozen variations. It is also smaller than most other regional varieties. Suzhou-style mooncakes feature both sweet and savoury types, the latter served hot and usually filled with pork mince.
- Beijing-style mooncake: This style has two variations. One is called "di qiang," which was influenced by the Suzhou-style mooncake. It has a light foamy dough as opposed to a flaky one. The other variation is called "fan mao" and has a flaky white dough. The two most popular fillings are the mountain hawthorn and wisteria blossom flavour. The Beijing-style mooncake is often meticulously decorated.
- Chaoshan (Teochew)-style mooncake: This is another flaky crust variety, but is larger in size than the Suzhou variety. It is close in diameter to the Cantonese style, but thinner in thickness. A variety of fillings are used, but the aroma of lard after roasting is emphasised.
- Ningbo-style mooncake: This style is also inspired by the Suzhou-style. It is prevalent in Zhejiang province and has a compact covering. The fillings are either seaweed or ham; it is also known for its spicy and salty flavour.
- Yunnan-style mooncake: Also known as "t'o" to the residents, its distinctive feature is the combination of various flours for the dough and includes rice flour, wheat flour, buckwheat flour, and more. Most of the variations within this style are sweet.
Modern mooncakes differ mainly from traditional types most vividly in the type of fillings that are offered. For instance, mooncakes containing taro paste and pineapple, which were considered novelty items at their time of invention have in recent years become commonplace items. In addition, ingredients such as coffee, chocolate, nuts (walnuts, mixed nuts, etc), fruits (prunes, pineapples, melons, etc), vegetables (sweet potatoes, etc), ham, and even lychees have been added to give a modern twist to the traditional recipes.
Snowy mooncakes first appeared on the market in the early 1980
's. These non-baked, chilled mooncakes were initially filled with traditional fillings such as lotus seed, red bean, or mung bean paste. However, the launch of a champagne truffle
snow-skin mooncake in 1994
by Raffles Hotel
, triggered a wave of modern mooncakes. Häagen-Dazs
quickly followed on from this innovation
, and were one of the first to create an ice-cream mooncake, with a choice of either the "traditional," snow-skin, or Belgian
white, milk, and dark chocolate crusts. Moon Cakes have lately become Americanized very much in the United States. Instead of a filling of egg yolk, you can have them filled with marshmallows or chocolate.
Following this bit of lateral thinking, it was obvious these non-baked mooncakes could be filled with pretty much anything that could be made into a paste. An explosion of new flavours appeared and spanned the range from:
White kidney bean paste or plain ice-cream are usually used as a base of flavours such as green tea, coffee, or ginseng, which are not thick enough or cannot be usually in large enough quantities to be a filling on their own.
Modern varieties of mooncakes are also different from their traditional counterparts in that their crusts typically do not require baking. However, they require refrigerating. There are two main varieties of modern mooncake crusts:
- Glutinous rice: A crust with texture similar to that of a mochi. These moon cakes are know colloquially as "snow-skin mooncakes" or "ice-skin mooncakes" (冰皮 or 冰皮月餅).
- Jelly: A crust made of gelling mixtures such as agar, gelatin, or konjac and flavoured with a wide variety of fruit flavourings.
To adapt to today’s health-conscious lifestyle, many bakeries offer miniature mooncakes and fat-free mooncakes. Some are made of yogurt
, and fat-free ice-cream. Even high-fibre
low-sugar mooncakes have made their appearance. To be competitive, bakers boast about how little sugar and oil they use in their mooncakes. Customers can pick and choose the size and filling that suits their taste and diet. For added hygiene, each cake is often wrapped in airtight plastic, accompanied by a tiny food preserver packet. The new version is well-accepted among young people in China.
Use in other countries or regions
The most traditional mooncake from Taiwan
is filled with yam
. Today, Taiwanese mooncakes have been influenced heavily by Japanese and European pastries, many mooncakes are made with finer and healthier ingredients. As a result, Taiwanese moon cakes are wide in variety that include low fat, lard free and ice cream versions. Popular modern flavors include green tea, chocolate and many others.
, local mooncakes are different from other varieties. They are circular like a moon, white, and rather thin. Fillings may include chocolate, cheese, milk, durian, and jackfruit. It is called "kue bulan".
, mooncakes are sold year-round, mainly in Japan's Chinatowns
, pronounced in Japanese as "geppei
(Red Bean) paste is the most popular filling for these mooncakes, but other sorts of beans as well as chestnut are also used. Unlike some types of Chinese mooncakes, mooncakes in Japan almost never contain an egg yolk in the centre.
In Vietnam, mooncakes are known as bánh trung thu
(literally "Mid-Autumn cake") and may contain a variety of fillings, such as savory roasted chicken, shark fins, mung beans
, coconut or durian.
The festival is intricately linked to the legends of Chang E
, the mythical
. There is also a folk tale about the overthrow of Mongol rule
facilitated by messages smuggled in moon cakes.
Because of its central role in the Mid-Autumn festival, mooncakes remain popular even in recent years; although with certain modifications. Part of the reason is that people are becoming more health-conscious. Traditional mooncakes are made with lard, and a lot of sugar. Another reason for its popularity is that the traditional mooncake has undergone much successful diversification. In fact, it has become so popular that many mooncakes are bought by businessmen who give them to their clients as presents. For many, mooncakes form a central part of the Mid-Autumn festival experience such that it is now commonly known as 'Mooncake Festival'.
Mooncakes were used as a medium by the Ming
revolutionaries in their espionage
effort to secretly distribute letters in order to overthrow the Mongolian
rulers of China
in the Yuan dynasty
. The idea is said to be conceived by Zhu Yuanzhang
(朱元璋) and his advisor Liu Bowen
(劉伯溫), who circulated a rumor that a deadly plague was spreading and the only way to prevent it was to eat the special mooncakes. This prompted the quick distribution of the mooncakes, which were used to hide a secret message coordinating the Han Chinese
revolt on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month.
Another method of hiding the message was printed in the surface of mooncakes as a simple puzzle or mosaic. In order to read the encrypted message, each of the 4 mooncakes packaged together must be cut into 4 parts each. The 16 pieces of mooncake, must then be pieced together in such a fashion that the secret messages can be read. The pieces of mooncake are then eaten to destroy the message.