THE CHINESE Mid-Autumn Festival is so closely associated with tins of mooncake changing hands that it has become known in the vernacular as the Mooncake Festival, which is incorrect though most people presume what it means.
Falling on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar, the festival’s official name is Zhongchiu Jie (literally, the middle of autumn), which, in the Chinese lunar calendar, will, by definition, fall on a full moon.
This year my observations of the celestial movements have placed this on the morning of the 28th, which corresponds with this year’s official date for the Mid-Autumn Festival on Sept. 27.
By this time, the autumn celebrations among the local Chinese, and increasingly among Filipinos as well, should be in full swing. In much the same way we celebrate Christmas, most of the gift-giving and family celebrations will take place before the date itself.
You will receive more mooncakes than it is possible for a sane person to eat. So, like fruitcakes in the olden days, one tends to pass these on and keep only the really good ones for themselves. The best are often those from five-star hotels, not due to some special secret, but because they don’t scrimp on ingredients, and have Chinese pastry chefs who can produce a dough of just the right flakiness.
Most of the hotel mooncakes (the now-defunct Mandarin Oriental used to have some of the best in town) are excellent but base their products on Cantonese recipes, which fill the mooncake with sweetened paste made from lotus seeds. Or at least, they’re supposed to be from creamed lotus seeds; most adulterate by adding mashed adzuki beans or mung beans or some other filler, often sweet potato.
“Luxury” is added by enclosing salted egg yolks: One or two egg yolks provide a welcome sharp edge of crumbly saltiness and umami, but when you get up to six egg yolks it feels like more of a savory biscuit with bits of sweet paste mixed in.
There are at least four different traditions of mooncakes, from nearby regions such as Teochew and Fujian, all variations on the theme of a flaky, lard-based crust and a sweet paste filling. In Shanghai they have a mooncake made of xiao long bao filling, meat and all, which came as a bit of a nasty shock.
The best place to get good mooncakes within the bounds of reasonable expense, but better than average, is the Far Eastern Mooncake Co. on Gandara street in Binondo, though adherents of Salazar Bakery and Eng Bee Tin would disagree. If you buy four they come in a nice square tin that will be appropriated for photographs or sewing materials.
I grew up seeing these red tins everywhere, and was so used to seeing them used for other things that I was actually surprised when mid-autumn came around and they actually held mooncakes.
The other important ritual of the moon festival is the annual dice game played with the extended family; technically gambling, but most of the time it’s just a bit of fun.
Chinese-Filipinos who visit China are surprised to discover that no one else really engages in this tradition. It’s a tradition peculiar to Xiamen and the neighboring regions, dating back to the Tang Dynasty.
Mooncakes are best eaten with a good oolong tea, like tie guan yin, but you needn’t wait —most people end up breaking them open for dessert.