Kudos to the State Fair for trying to add some ethnic stuff to its lineup of fried foods and people-watching this year. The Chinese Lantern Festival looks like Asian eye-candy from what photos I’ve seen. But let’s get our cultural facts straight, folks: The State Fair of Texas is celebrating the wrong holiday at the wrong time. The Chinese Lantern Festival traditionally occurs at the beginning of the Lunar calendar, which is in February. What we should all be celebrating right now is the Mid-Autumn Festival.
This year, the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhongqiu Jie) falls on Sunday, September 30, a day when there’s a guaranteed full moon. In the month leading up to the Mid-Autumn Festival, friends and family in Asia exchange rich Chinese pastries called mooncakes (yue bin).
Do the jump for a lesson on mooncakes.
The Mid-Autumn Festival story: In order to understand Zhongqiu Jie, I’m going to put on my best Chinese School teacher hat and tell you a story about the rabbit on the moon. Here’s my lazy, shortened version: During whatever dynasty, there was a beautiful woman named Chang’e who desired immortality. (Back then, Chinese people were obsessed with the idea of living forever.) She swallowed a pill that promised her immortal life, and then she began floating up towards the moon. Once she lived on the moon for awhile, Chang’e started feeling lonely. Someone (one of the gods or maybe the husband she abandoned) felt sorry for the woman and sent her a rabbit to keep her company. That’s why some people say you can see the outlining of a small furry animal on the moon.
(I can’t, but that’s another story.)
A mooncake is a Chinese dessert cake that weighs like a brick. One mooncake, according to the good source Wikipedia, is approximately 1,000 calories. This completely explains why – after eating my way slowly through three boxes of mooncakes this month - I’ve been having some trouble squeezing into my clothes. Mooncakes are filled with paste and covered in a thin pastry layer that’s doughy and soft. The “crust” of a mooncake can come off easily if you scrape your fingernail against it, and sometimes it has words printed on the tippity top that tells you what’s on the inside.
What’s in a mooncake: Usually a mooncake is filled with a block of sweet mung bean paste or lotus seed paste. The best ones (in my opinion) have salty preserved yolks in the middle, but a good amount of people hate these. To be fair, the yolks look like plastic and have this weird chalky texture. But I grew up eating the mooncakes with yolks, so I find weird pleasure in discovering a duck egg surprise amongst my soft mung bean paste. It gives the mooncake extra character. Plus, it’s also supposed to represent the moon. HOW COOL IS THAT.
How to eat a mooncake: People who’ve never encountered a mooncake probably think they’re supposed to pick up the whole thing and stick it in their mouths like a Big Mac. No. Mooncakes, about 3 to 4 inches in diameter, are meant to be eaten slowly. Take a knife and slice the mooncake into fourths (if you’re a fatty) or eighths (if you want to maintain your dignity). Usually, we share these wedges among friends. Drinking cups of hot tea also helps to balance out the sweetness.
Where to buy these mooncakes: Your best bet is driving to Plano. Asia World Market should have mooncake gift boxes, and Desir Bakery at 99 Ranch sells non-traditional shaped mooncakes in a yellow box. The mooncakes are smaller, topped with sesame seeds, and more compact, but the insides are still filled with different pastes.