Monday, October 1, 2012

Moon Cake Festival

Every autumn, Chinese folks take a weeklong break to celebrate their country and the end of the harvest season.  During this celebration, called the Mid Autumn Festival, people eat moon cakes and gaze at the goddess in the moon.  Moon cakes are small pie like pastries that are traditionally filled with lotus paste or sweetened red bean paste.

To quote Chris, moon cakes are China's way of letting you know they have a sense of humor.

There are many different stories about how this tradition started, most of which confuse me.  I think the best version is:

Around 2170 B.C., the earth once had ten suns circling over it; each took its turn to illuminate to the earth. One day all ten suns appeared together, scorching the earth with their heat. A strong and tyrannical archer named Hou Yi saved the earth. He succeeded in shooting down nine of the suns. One day, Hou Yi stole the elixir of life from a goddess. However his beautiful wife Chang Er drank the elixir of life in order to save the people from her husband's tyrannical rule. After drinking it, she found herself floating and flew to the moon. Hou Yi loved his divinely beautiful wife so much; he didn't shoot down the moon. 

Fast forward this story a few thousand years.  The Mongols were running China.  The folks in the Ming dynasty decided it was time to overthrow the government.  Mid Autumn festival was around the corner so the Mings decided to bake messages into the moon cakes detailing their plan of action.  They then started a rumor that a plague was coming, and moon cakes were the only cure.  As expected, the cakes were snagged up, the battle plan was spread and the revolution was successful.

When we went through our culture class with Jie, we learned that today people exchange moon cakes with friends and colleagues before Mid-Autumn festival.  So Chris and I decided to pick out some moon cakes for some of the people who have made our lives easier in China. 

We went to the nearest Carrefour (our grocery store), and saw literally hundreds of different brands of moon cakes ranging in price from a couple RMB ($.50) to 1200 RMB ($250).  All of the cakes were wrapped in Chinese packaging, so I had no clue what flavor to expect.  I felt completely lost and overwhelmed.  I did not want to give junky moon cakes, so I decided to take matters in my own hands and hold a moon cake taste test.  We picked up 3 moderately priced moon cakes, and headed for home for the tasting.

Our first moon cakes.  We were do ready to dig in!

This is a  cross section shot of the moon cakes.  The red bean paste cake is on the right; the lotus paste cake is on the left.

I could barely contain my excitement when we got home!  I was going to sample a tasty part of Chinese culture.  I unwrapped the cakes, took out a knife and sliced off a sample-sized chunk of one of the red bean paste pastries.  I took a small bite, and choked it down.  I am by no means a picky eater, but this was horrible. 

All hope was not lost; we still had our lotus pastries.  Sample number two tasted like stale brownie, dehydrated peanut butter, and paste.  

Chris was eager to help with the taste test.
He takes a preliminary sniff.
His face says it all!
All I had to say about these cakes was best shown in this picture.

My not so secret moon cake message.

There was no way that I would feel comfortable serving these moon cakes to my worst enemy.  I decided that I needed to ask some of my Chinese friends which brands were tasty.  Fortunately, a couple of friends wrote down the Chinese characters for the decent moon cakes.  Chris snagged a couple of cakes on the way home from work and we sampled more cakes. 

We brace ourselves for the worst...

This was a lotus paste moon cake with a hard boiled quail's egg in the center.  It tasted better than it sounds.

Success!  They were by no means perfect, but at least I was able to finish the cake.  Chinese folks must have a completely different flavor palate than mine.   Moon cakes are not something that I would eat every day.  I am happy to report that Sophie, my new Chinese teacher, commented about how we purchased tasty moon cakes. 

As fate would have it, moon cake festival happened to fall on the 16th anniversary of my first date with Chris.  On our first date, we went to Ben and Jerry’s for ice cream.  As a tradition, we usually go out to dinner on the anniversary of that evening and top it off with an ice cream run.  This year, I needed to find a way to marry both of these traditions.

The answer would come easily thanks to a little ice cream place called Haagen Dazs.  

It is Haagen-Dazs!  It has to be good!
To tickle the palates of many Westerners, Haagen Dazs created ice-cream moon cakes!  Ever since I saw the commercial for the little cakes in a cab, I knew I had to try one.

So on moon cake day we headed to the Jing’an Temple area and picked up a petite collection of cakes from the Haagen Dazs vendors and rushed home to place them in the freezer.

Chris picks up the mooncakes from the tent.  The cakes are packed in dry ice so they will make the subway trip home in tact!
To quote Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother, these cakes were going to be LEGENDARY!  I figured we would follow tradition and wait until after dinner to celebrate.

We went to Nova Cool Docks where we dined on French cuisine on the patio, and gazed at the moon as per both Wilcox and Chinese tradition. 

This was our view from dinner.  Notice the full moon!

When we got home, we immediately broke out the moon cakes. 

Haagen Dazs never disappoints!

I am happy to report that I savored every bite of the white chocolate, strawberry and vanilla yumminess.  Ice cream moon cakes are amazing and a must try for people everywhere! 

So tasty!
This whole experience made me realize while I am not Chinese, and will never be Chinese, China will always have a special place in my heart.  Hence, Chris and I made a pact to celebrate moon cake festival each year regardless of where we live.  Even if the cakes are really ice cream!