The Mid-Autumn Festival usually falls in September or early October. In China, moon cakes have blanketed markets. Were it not for the Mid-Autumn Festival and its traditions, moon cakes may have been banished by today’s populace who seek low-fat, low-sugar foods. Moon cakes are symbols of harmony, family reunion, and good fortune, and these meanings are important to the Chinese people today.
The moon cake had several names. Previously, before it was called moon cake, it was called the Hu cake, royal court cake, small cake, or reunion cake. It was primarily used as an offering to the Moon God. As the culture changed throughout history, it became a food item for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Along with many other folk traditions, moon cakes have lost their divinity and poetic values, and become increasingly secular.
The earliest moon cake appeared to be associated with Wen Zhong, a legendary teacher from the Shang period (1600-1046 B.C.). In Zhejiang Province in southern China, a type of thin-edged cake named “Teacher’s Cake” was developed. This is the origin of the moon cake.
When Han Dynasty official Zhang Qian visited the western regions of China in the second century, he brought back sesame seeds and walnuts, which became common ingredients in moon cakes. Because sesame seeds and walnuts were from ethnic minority areas (also called “Hu”), moon cakes were called “Hu cakes.” This lasted until the Tang Dynasty (618-907). At that time, there were many cake shops in the Tang capital of Chang’An. One Mid-Autumn Festival, Emperor Xuanzong tried a Hu cake and marveled at its taste. His concubine, Lady Yang, looked up in the evening sky and saw the full moon. She suggested naming the confection moon cake.
During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), moon cakes were also called “small cakes” and “moon balls.” Although the famous poet Su Dongpo wrote a poem about “small cakes,” people still called them moon cakes.
In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (16441911) dynasties, cosmetic improvements were made to moon cakes. The shell of the moon cakes became more delicate, but not much else has changed over the years. Like many other forms of art, once it reached its artistic height, it became difficult to improve on it.
As time went by, moon cakes have also developed regional characteristics based on local foods and customs. There are now Beijing-style, Suzhou-style, Guangdong-style, Chaozhou-style, and Sichuan-style moon cakes. Beijing-style moon cakes have a crispy brown shell, while Suzhou-style moon cakes have multiple layers of thin, pale crust. Guangzhou-style has a thick, soft shell and a variety of fillings. In Muslim areas, residents use beef as fillings. In Taiwan, sweet potatoes are also used for the filling in moon cakes.
In recent years, as technology has improved, some new types of moon cakes have emerged. Such new inventions include ice-shelled moon cakes that do not require baking, but need to be kept frozen, vegetable or fruit moon cakes, abalone or fish fin filled seafood moon cakes, coconut milk moon cakes, and animal-shaped moon cakes.
The packaging for moon cakes has also become more luxurious. It almost feels like it is trying to compete with the moon cakes themselves. Hopefully, this is only a process of exploration, and the makers will return to focusing their attention on improving the moon cakes.