This month, as the moon gets rounder and fatter, so will most bellies in Hong Kong. It’s mooncake season, when the city is engulfed by a frenzy for jyut6 beng2 (月餅), the little cakes that are traditionally eaten on Mid-Autumn Festival. You can find them everywhere: supermarkets, department stores, even drug stores and street stalls. Mid-Autumn Festival takes place on just one day — the 15th day of the eighth lunar month — but much like the shopping hype for Christmas or Halloween, you would be forgiven for thinking it lasted a whole month. .
On the “Night of the Moon,” many families with young children descend onto Hong Kong’s beaches with paper lanterns. Provided the night sky is clear, they might built sand castles and light candles. Other families will stay indoors and welcome relatives, focusing on family gossip and games. Those who want to celebrate in town may catch a lion dance display or burn incense in honour of the deity Chang’e. Whatever someone decides to do, it’s pretty much certain they will be eating mooncakes.
Many people will already have a few boxes of mooncakes stacked in a corner, gifts from aunties, grandmas, friends and colleagues. Hints that the tradition of eating mooncakes for Mid-Autumn Festival have been around since the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and popularised since the Song dynasty (960-1279) in China. People worshipped the moon and its role in the harvest that autumn would bring. Compared to the sun, the moon constantly changed shape, so many myths were created around this strange but life-giving phenomenon. One of them is the legend of Chang’e, the Moon Goddess of Immortality. Mooncakes are laid out and offered to her during the festival.
The round shape of mooncakes symbolises unity, and sharing it with family members reflects the strength of familial bonds. The power of mooncakes is echoed in another legend, this time when they were used as a tool against the Mongolian rulers of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). Messages were hidden inside mooncakes, instructing the Han Chinese to revolt on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, which led to the establishment of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
A proper Cantonese-style mooncake has a thin glossy crust no more than a few millimetres thick, just tender and sturdy enough to hold the ample filling. Classic flavours include white lotus seed paste (lin4 jung4 蓮蓉), red bean paste (dau2 saa1 豆沙) and “five kernel” (ng5 jan4 五仁) – a mix of nuts and seeds including walnuts, pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds, peanuts, almonds or sesame seeds. In the quest for balance between sweet and savoury, there are often shreds of Jinhua ham in the the five kernel mooncakes and salted duck egg yolks in those with lotus seed paste.
The original mooncakes were meant to be shared, and the head of the family would carefully divide one into eight segments. Recently, though, better economic conditions mean that many people indulge in an entire mooncake on their own. That’s a lot of fat, sugar and calories, so in recent years, marketers have introduced a whole range of lighter variations. Some of the most popular are the so-called Snowy mooncakes, no-bake treats that are essentially the same as mochi, the popular Japanese rice cakes made from glutinous short grain rice and filled with sweet fillings of bean paste or ice cream.
The Snowy mooncake replaces the traditional crust with a glutinous rice flour wrapping and swaps the decadent high-sugar, high-oil paste filling with anything the imagination can conjure. The original bakery behind the Snowy mooncake craze, Taipan, has been rolling them out since the late 1980s. So far, it has produced over 40 flavours, including exotic combinations of durian, mango and pomelo, along with tea flavours and — for the truly brave — a foie gras cheese concoction.
The mooncake craze doesn’t stop there. In 1997, Häagen-Dazs was the first to introduce ice cream mooncakes. Almost every chocolatier and pastry maker in Hong Kong has their own version of a mooncake. The only remaining commonality seems to be the name.
Whatever they are made with, these festival goodies don’t come cheap. A traditional box of four will set you back HK$350, while luxury gift versions can go for more than HK$600. Die-hard fans and connoisseurs need not fret, though – wait a week after the festival and the sky-high stacks of unsold mooncakes will be sold for half the price.
Where to buy mooncakes
The Peninsula Spring Moon egg custard mini-mooncakes are probably the most sought-after mooncakes in the city – they always sell out several months before the festival. These little treats are a lighter version of the traditional cake have become a must-have status item.
If you’re after an authentic taste, head to Wing Wah, a city-wide chain where the mooncakes hark back to the 1950s, with traditional sweet and savoury flavours, including one with Jinhua ham and nuts. You’ll see plenty of Hong Kong grannies shopping at Wing Wah – a good sign that these are some of the best in flavour, texture, and value.
Kee Wah is another big chain that specialises in classic mooncakes. They pride themselves on making everything locally and offer lard-free and low sugar versions for those trying to keep their indulgence under control.
This ubiquitous chain is the place to find Snowy mooncakes. Served chilled, these cakes are made from glutinous rice flour wrappings with an endless variety of jam, jelly and sweet paste fillings.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.