This time of year, China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and other east Asian countries celebrate one of their biggest holidays of the year, the Mid-Autumn Festival (also known as Full Moon Festival, Harvest Moon Festival or Mooncake Festival).
Whereas the Lunar New Year marks the passing of the cold winter, the start of the growing season, and wishing for good fortune and happiness over the upcoming year, the Mid-Autumn Festival, on the other hand, gives thanks for a bountiful autumn harvest. With origins dating back thousands of years, the 15th day of the 8th lunar month is often a joyous occasion, as crops are ripe, weather is pleasant, and a bright full moon promises feast and festivities with loved ones late into the evening.
Enter the Mooncake
Of course, it is virtually impossible to mention the Mid-Autumn Festival without noting the ever-present mooncake. These sweet and savoury treats first came into prominence during China’s Song dynasty 1,000 years ago. And similar to how northern Vietnam’s Cha Ca La Vong was a symbol of resistance against French colonial rule, legend has it that secret messages were inscribed onto mooncakes by Ming revolutionaries in the 14th century, prompting an uprising against their Mongolian rulers.
Most mooncakes are a mere 10cm (4 in) wide and can easily fit into the palm of your hand, but don’t let the miniature size of these rich calorie bombs fool you. A single treat is packed with a whopping 700-800 calories – that’s the equivalent of four slices of pizza. Fortunately, these nutrient-heavy cakes are not meant to be consumed by one individual, but rather sliced and divvied up amongst members of the household to emphasize their close family bonds.
Evolution of the Mooncake
A traditional mooncake sports floral, moon or rabbit-shaped patterns and may consist of sweet bean paste, lotus seed paste, salted egg yolk, fruits, nuts or grilled pork. But nowadays, manufacturers have become creative with their recipes, and it’s not uncommon to see ice cream, chocolate, taro, green tea matcha or tiramisu fillings. Also rapidly gaining in popularity is the ‘snowskin’ mooncake with its soft mochi-like exterior.
Capitalizing on the lucrative multibillion dollar per year industry, companies all across Asia all want a slice of the mooncake industry, including retail chains such as McDonald’s and Starbucks to luxury brands such as Bentley and Gucci.
What really takes the cake on the premium brands are not the treats themselves though, but rather the fancy, innovative packaging. Every year, social media is flooded with images of mooncakes in embroidered jewellery boxes, decorative handbags and multi-tiered miniature wardrobe cabinets. For example, 2019’s Louis Vuitton box opened onto a blue hot-air balloon amidst a background of clouds and a compartment holding four succulent chocolate mooncakes.
Unfortunately, these luxury-branded cakes are only available exclusively to industry VIPs and not for sale to the general public. For those looking to impress their business connections or romantic partners, surprisingly the best source for mooncakes are from upscale hotels who spend several months designing, sourcing and marketing their recipes and elaborate packaging.
Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam
The Full Moon Festival, or Tet Trung Thu, is especially significant in Vietnam (one of Heritage Line’s main cruising destinations), and every year during the weeks leading up to the celebrations, the streets are lined with ‘banh trung thu’ stalls. The two main types of mooncakes in Vietnam are banh nuong, which resembles the traditional baked variety mentioned above, and banh deo, a soft, white cake filled with sweet sticky rice.
In contrast to other Asian countries, however, Vietnam’s Mid-Autumn festivities are more heavily focused on spending time with children, as the parents have been quite busy working the fields throughout the year and up until harvest time. Headlining the celebrations are vibrant paper lanterns, toys, masks and lion dances.
Louis Vuitton 2019 Mooncake: Heison Ho/Hypebeast
Marina Bay Sand 2020 Mooncake: Marina Bay Sands Hotel