The must-do gift of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival season, mooncakes have become more luxurious and lavish in their presentation than ever. In China, mooncake gifting is a multi-billion dollar industry. Opulently packaged mooncakes, typically sold in boxes of four, cost upwards of $45, with each cake elegantly displayed or nestled in its own container. As pricy as this is, Chinese social etiquette pretty much demands that everyone give these sweet delicacies to friends, family, co-workers, clients and sometimes even government officials during the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as Moon Festival.
According to legend, the custom of mooncake giving dates back to the 14th century when Chinese rebel leaders used these treat-filled pastries to organize a massive insurrection against the Mongol invaders who oppressively ruled the country. Knowing that Mongols did not eat mooncake, the rebel leaders sought permission to distribute mooncakes to Chinese residents, arguing that it was their way of blessing the longevity of the Mongol Emperor. Unbeknownst to the Mongols, each mooncake contained a secret message that urged kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, when the full moon would be at its brightest. As directed, the Chinese populace rose up as one and overthrew the Mongols, ushering in the Ming Dynasty. Thereafter, the Mid-Autumn Festival was celebrated with mooncakes.
Traditional mooncakes are dense round pastries, wrapped in a thin glazed crust and filled with lotus seed paste, lard and a whole salted duck egg yolk (symbolizing the full autumn moon). Like the Western tradition of giving fruitcake at Christmas, mooncakes are considered more an expression of friendship and respect than a food craving. But for most Chinese if you don’t give and receive mooncake, it wouldn’t feel like a Mid-Autumn celebration.
If anything mooncake-giving has become more popular than it was in the 14th century. Businesses and hotels have developed their own exclusive lines. Nouvelle cuisine chefs have introduced all kinds of new flavors including mixed nuts, ham, fruit, chocolate ganache, green tea, and champagne custard. Haagen-Daz has even created an ice cream-filled mooncake. Starbucks has also recognized the demand and come out with its own mooncake interpretation. Other traditionalists have incorporated really expensive ingredients like shark fin and bird’s nest.
The intricate molded pattern on the face of the mooncakes are often works of art in themselves. High-end products feature beautiful custom designs that are proprietary to the brand. Then there is the packaging for these presents, which, at times, is more befitting a $500 an ounce bottle of perfume, than pastry. In recent years, the Chinese government has become so concerned about overpackaging, it even mandated that the package couldn’t cost more than 25% of the product itself. Some manufacturers skirted this rule by categorizing its product as a “gift set” that happened to contain mooncakes.
With the Mid-Autumn Festival fast approaching, this year landing on September 22, mooncakes are selling like hotcakes, but there will always be some people who wait until the very last minute to complete their holiday shopping. For them, scalpers lie in wait, ready to sell them a few mooncakes at exorbitant prices from the back of their trucks.