The history of the mid-Autumn festival can be traced back to the ancient Chinese text Li-Ji which dictates that the Chinese Emperor should offer sacrifices to the moon in autumn. During the Song Dynasty (420) the 15th night of the eighth moon (which falls in September/October) was declared the mid-autumn festival, a pivotal part of which is the giving and eating of mooncakes. The festival also commemorates a slightly more recent 14th century Ming revolution to overthrow the Mongols. Revolutionary plans were circulated via mooncakes, either hidden within or via a coded pattern on the face of the mooncake. The revolutionaries received and then destroyed the tasty, tasty secret message.
There are regional variations of the mooncake but here in Hong Kong the Cantonese style mooncake is most common. The mooncake is circular or square with a scalloped edge, 10cm in diameter and 5cm high. A thin golden crust embossed with Chinese characters for longevity or harmony encapsulates a filling of lotus seed paste, with a heart of one or two salted duck egg yolks. This makes for a rich, heavy calorie-laden treat best eaten in small wedges accompanied by Chinese tea.
As mooncakes are commonly given as gifts, they come beautifully packaged in decorated boxes or tins. Mooncakes are serious business in Hong Kong with top hotels such as the Shangri-la, Ritz-Carlton, Mandarin Oriental, The Four Seasons and the Peninsula each releasing their own luxury mooncakes for HK$300-$400 per box. Variations on traditional fillings include melon seed paste, nuts, mushroom and meat including ham, chicken, duck and roast pork. Some mooncakes contain four egg yolks to represent the four phases of the moon and ensure each slice of mooncake contains a portion of salted egg yolk. Those with a sweeter tooth may prefer mooncakes with a filling of egg custard, frozen snowy mooncakes, chocolate mooncakes or ice cream mooncakes.
The mooncake shares some similarities with the Easter egg. Like the mid-Autumn festival, Easter occurs on a different date each year dictated by lunar phases. The giving and eating of the mooncake/Easter egg forms part of the celebration. The traditional painted Easter egg, as with a traditional mooncake, has a decorated outer and contains (or once contained) an egg-yolk. Sweet variations of both mooncakes (custard, snowy, chocolate or ice-cream mooncakes) and Easter eggs (chocolate, sugar or marshmallow eggs) are now prevalent and both the Easter egg and the mooncake are available in shops months before the actual festival.
During this mid-Autumn festival I sampled not only the traditional mooncake, but also the custard, snowy, ice-cream and chocolate varieties.
The Traditional Mooncake
It seemed only right to start with the traditional lotus paste two egg yolk mooncake. The sweet buttery crust is not dissimilar to that of a fruit mince pie and the lotus seed paste is reminiscent of the quince paste that accompanies cheese; dense and sweet but not cloyingly so. The egg yolk tastes like a hard-boiled egg yolk and has a dry, crumbly texture. I enjoyed the slices of mooncake which didn’t contain any egg yolk, but trying several slices with egg yolk was not enough for me to acquire a taste for it.
The Egg Custard Mooncake
Thanks to a friend, I managed to obtain one of the Peninsula Connoisseur mini egg custard mooncakes. After tasting its rich buttery crust and creamy egg custard filling I completely understand why these delicious morsels sold out within 24 hours and were a target for mooncake speculators who demanded thousands per box when reselling them.
The Snowy Mooncake
The snowy mooncake is a frozen dessert with a skin of glutinous rice encompassing a sweet filling. It is similar to the Japanese daifuku – a glutinous rice cake with a bean paste filling (for Brisbane readers, these are the ‘green things’ which can be enjoyed at several Brisbane sushi trains). I sampled the mango and pomelo snowy which has a tangy mango flavoured skin and a zesty pomelo (citrus) filling and a lemon cheesecake snowy which has a subtle lemon flavoured skin and delicious cheesecake filling. There are a multitude of flavours available and with Hong Kong’s temperatures still high even in mid-autumn, these make for a refreshing and relatively light desert.
The Ice-Cream Mooncake
I was so confident that I would enjoy the Haagen Dazs ice-cream mooncakes that I bought a whole box of them. They were beautifully packaged in a red silver and gold box, with one large mooncake (the moon) surrounded by eight smaller mooncakes (stars). Each was a different flavour of ice cream coated in dark or white chocolate. One of the smaller white chocolate coated mooncakes contained a mango sorbet ‘yolk’. These were delicious, and as it are rare to find someone who does not enjoy ice-cream and chocolate these are a safe bet for a gift. The only complication is that even with the supplied dry ice they will only last for a limited time in transit.
The Chocolate Mooncake
I was lucky enough to receive a gift of Godiva chocolate mooncakes. These are essentially chocolates which happen to be mooncake shaped and like the ice-cream mooncakes will not last too long in the Hong Kong heat before losing this attribute. Even a little out of shape, they were absolutely delicious.
The verdict: Whilst I enjoyed all the mooncakes we tried, the egg custard mooncake was easily my favourite. Now to work out how to get my hands on a box of them next year!