Mooncakes are to Mid-Autumn Festival what mince pies are to Christmas. The seasonal round cakes traditionally have a sweet filling of lotus seed paste or red bean paste and often have one or more salted duck eggs in the center to represent the moon. And the moon is what this celebration is all about. Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th month, it is the time when the moon is said to be at its brightest and fullest.
There are two legends which claim to explain the tradition of eating mooncakes. One Tang Dynasty myth holds that the Earth once had 10 suns circling it. One day all 10 suns appeared at once, scorching the planet with their heat. It was thanks to a skillful archer named Hou Yi that the Earth was saved. He shot down all but one of the suns. As his reward, the Heavenly Queen Mother gave Hou Yi the Elixir of Immortality, but she warned him that he must use it wisely. Hou Yi ignored her advice and, corrupted by fame and fortune, became a tyrannical leader. Chang-Er, his beautiful wife, could no longer stand by and watch him abuse his power so she stole his Elixir and fled to the moon to escape his angry wrath. And thus began the legend of the beautiful woman in the moon, the Moon Fairy.
The second legend has it that during the Yuan Dynasty, an underground group led by Zhu Yuan Zang was determined to rid the country of Mongolian dominance. The moon cake was created to carry a secret message. When the cake was opened and the message read, an uprising was unleashed which successfully routed the Mongolians. It happened at the time of the full moon, which, some say, explains why mooncakes are eaten at this time.
Mooncakes are usually stamped with Chinese characters indicating the name of the bakery and the type of filling used. Some bakeries will even stamp them with your family name so that you can give personalised ones to friends and family. They are usually presented in boxes of four which indicate the four phases of the moon. Traditional mooncakes are made with melted lard, but today vegetable oil is more often used in the interests of health.
Mooncakes are not for the diet-conscious as they are loaded with calories. The best way to wash down one of these sticky cakes is with a cup of Chinese tea, especially Jasmine or Chrysanthemum tea, which aids the digestion.