Monthly Archives: May 2007

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Asian Moon Cakes

The flavors of fall are complex and earthy.
Chestnuts. Pumpkins. Sweet potatoes.
And, if you are Chinese, moon cakes. These are not the sugary pastries that Westerners usually think of when it comes to cake. Moon cakes are small, dense and more savory than sweet.

They are eaten during the mid-autumn festival, traditionally on the 15th day of the eighth moon by the Chinese lunar calendar. This year, it falls on Sunday. This is when the moon is at its fullest and brightest.

Festivities include music, dancing — and eating moon cakes.

The Greensboro Chinese Association and various Asian student groups at UNCG will host an Autumn Moon Festival on Saturday. The event, which also promotes the university’s new Asian studies major, will include cultural speakers and music, dance and martial-arts demonstrations. UNCG geography professor Susan Walcott will talk about the significance of moon cakes. Festivalgoers also can sample moon cakes there.lif_mooncake_23_

More on moon cakes

The palm-sized cakes are round or rectangular. They usually come in a set of four and are packaged in tin boxes.

Traditional moon cakes are made of sweet bean paste fillings, with a golden-brown, flaky crust. Some are filled with a golden duck egg yolk.

The top of the cake is usually embossed with the Chinese characters for longevity, harmony or the baker’s insignia.

It takes two to four weeks to prepare the bean paste, so most families just buy them from a bakery or store.

Through the years, moon cakes have evolved from a Chinese delicacy to something as common as ice cream. Modern versions of the cake may be fat-free or feature flavors such as lychee or chocolate.

Other Asian countries also have adopted their own versions of the fall delicacy. In Vietnam, the cakes may be filled with roasted chicken, shark fin or mung beans.

Cambodians may fill it with durian, a large, pungent fruit, found in southeast Asia.

In Indonesia, moon cakes may be filled with chocolate, cheese or milk.

And the Japanese version of the moon cake may contain chestnuts or azuki beans, which are small, sweet and red.

Moon cake folklore

* One legend is that the custom of eating moon cakes began in the late Yuan dynasty. It’s said that the Han people resented the Mongol rule of the Yuan Dynasty. Revolutionaries, led by Chu Yuan-chang, plotted to usurp the throne.

Chu needed a way to unite the people to revolt, without alerting the Mongol rulers of their plans. So, his close adviser, Liu Po-wen, came up with this plan: spread a rumor that a plague was ravaging the land and that only by eating a special moon cake, distributed by the revolutionaries, could they prevent the disaster.

So, the Han people received these cakes that when cut open, had the message: “Revolt on the 15th of the eighth moon.” This is how the people united to overthrow the Yuan. And that’s how moon cakes became an integral part of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

* Another legend dates back to ancient times when 10 suns appeared at once in the sky. The emperor ordered a famous archer to shoot down the nine extra suns. When the archer completed his task, the Goddess of Western Heaven rewarded him with a pill that made him immortal. When the archer’s wife found the pill and took it, she was banished to the moon. Legend says that her beauty is greatest on the day of the Moon Festival.