Mooncakes (yue bing) are a type of Chinese pastry eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival
(Zhong Qiu Jie) also known as the Moon Festival. This festival occurs on the 15th day of the 8th month in the lunar calendar and falls between second week of September and second week of October in the Western calendar. A mooncake consists mainly of a sweet or savory filling baked in crust. There are two main types of mooncakes crusts:
A crisp, flaky pastry but somewhat chewier and heavier than the crust on an apple turnover. Usually mooncakes made with this type of crust look like little round mounds and are naturally white colored. Crusts of this type are traditionally found on mooncakes in the Suzhou region of Eastern China.
A sweet doughy, thin skin crust which require the entire mooncake to be pressed into special molds prior to baking. This process creates fancy relief patterns on the surface. Usually an egg wash is used to give the cakes a gleaming, brown lacquered appearance. This type of crust is normally associated with Hong Kong and the Guangzhou region of Southern China. Mooncakes with this type of crust are more commonly found in Chinese bakeries and Asian markets in North America.
Of the wide range of fillings, the most common are the red bean paste and the lotus seed paste. Both are made with large amounts of oil and sugar. The red bean paste filling is a dark, nearly black, maroon color and has an robust flavor. This paste is similar to the Japanese anko paste. The lotus seed paste version is almost translucent light amber color and has a more delicate taste. Salty duck egg yolks baked in the middle are a common addition. Slightly less common but still traditional fillings include various Chinese "mincemeats" made from nuts, fruits (pineapple, jujubes), and sometimes bits of pork fat or ham. New types of mooncakes are also created every year. These newer varieties include unbaked mooncakes served cold and luxury mooncakes with shark fin or bird's nest fillings. Since mooncakes are often given as gifts, these luxury mooncakes are meant to impress others--not because they taste any better. Häagen-Dazs has also developed an ice cream mooncake for sale in Asian countries.
Mooncakes were first recorded in the reign of the emperor Xi Zong (874-889 AD) during the last years of the Tang dynasty and became popular in the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD). But the significance of eating mooncakes is traditionally attributed to an important event in the 14th century. The Han Chinese were trying to plan the overthrow of the Yuan Dynasty (A.D.1280-1368) which was founded by Mongol invaders from the north. Since the Han were under surveillance by the understandably suspicious Mongols, the Han hid secret messages inside mooncakes which were given to other Han Chinese. The successful overthrow of the Mongols is traditionally attributed to an initial rebellion on the 15th day of the 8th month, a date supposedly set by the messages within the cakes.
Also, the inclusion of a duck egg yolk in the middle of the cake is thought to resemble a full moon against a dark sky when the cake is cut in half. This resemblance is significant since the date of the Mid-Autumn Festival is also the day the moon is supposedly the fullest and closest to the Earth.
Where to purchase if you live in North America:
During August most Asian markets will have a large supply of mooncakes for sale. Look for colorful square or rectangular metal tins. Usually the mooncakes are either imported from Hong Kong or shipped from large Chinese bakeries in New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. Mooncakes may also be purchased directly from Chinese bakeries year round. These bakeries are normally located in the Chinatown area of larger cities.
As a final note, I'd advise against eating a whole mooncake in one sitting. In my experience mooncakes are usually quartered and shared among friends or family. And the bites are quickly washed down with hot tea. This practice makes sense considering the cakes are made with mostly sugar and oil.
But mostly just having Chinese parents