In the run up to this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, these unassuming little pastries have made serious headlines in China. Traditionally given as gifts to clients and relatives by businessmen and families, this centuries old practice came under public scrutiny recently for excessive waste and misuse of public funds; one Hong Kong based group estimates that 1.8million mooncakes were dumped during last year’s Mid-Autumn celebration. As part of his campaign against corruption and waste, President Xi Jinping announced that this year Chinese officials would be banned from using public funds to buy mooncakes and that anyone violating this would be severely punished. While members of the public greeted the measure with enthusiasm, it has sent mooncake producers and many officials into utter disarray.
So what is it that makes these baked goods so special they’re capable of shaking the Middle Kingdom to its core?
Certainly the delicious taste has a lot to do with it. Conventionally fashioned into small circular shapes symbolizing unity and completeness, they comprise a pastry crust stuffed with a variety of different flavored pastes. Traditionalists tend to favor sweet mooncakes stuffed with lotus or red bean paste, or savory versions filled with pork mince. For those willing to experiment with their mooncakes, bakers have started producing more creative versions, such as jelly “crusts” stuffed with ice-cream, chocolate or coffee fillings. The jury is still out on whether some of the wackier creations can actually be considered mooncakes and this question of classification has also caused tempers to flare.
Back in the day, mooncakes incited more than dining rooms debates. Folk legend holds that mooncakes played an integral role in overthrowing the ruling Mongols at the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1280 – 1368). Apparently the Ming revolutionaries smuggled messages inside the thick mooncake crusts and this way were able to organize the Han uprising that finally toppled the Mongol regime. Other sources contend that messages were baked into the pastry in coded symbols or puzzles that only those in the know could solve and intepret. Other than Marie-Antoinette’s alleged “let them eat cake” speech, there can’t be too many pastries claiming such a prominent role in a revolutionary tale.
Whether or not these stories are pie-baked versions of the truth, retelling them presents a perfect opportunity to sit down with a mooncake and cup of tea; a tradition as likely to appeal to the British as the Chinese.