What's Wrong with the Mooncake?
The mooncake has received a bashing. But there’s more to this confectionery than sugar and lard.
And before you write me off forever, send hate mail to my inbox, or throw mooncakes through my window, bear with me for a bit.
Liking mooncake is a statement that is in diametric opposition to how many feel. You may have read, for instance, my esteemed colleague’s article, “The Case Against the Mooncake”. Citing its dubious origins, contribution to rising obesity (though I always thought that was McDonald’s), and a flagrant waste of resources, she calls for its ultimate banishment from the face of the earth.
And the moon.
Plenty cried, “Hear, hear!” Others have despised her point of view.
And so, as goes with the occupational territory, I air my feelings about this lump of lard, sugar and lotus, and expect a similarly divided response. But no mooncakes through the window, please.
I’d have to begin by first admitting the mooncake is no epitome of magnificent culinary art. For all its laboriousness, its eventual result is as down home as your mother’s fried chicken. In its traditional form, at least, it hardly deserves of enraptured culinary praise – no person would sing of its almost dull-coloured, gum-sticking lotus-seed filling, or its simply wrought pastry. No pate sucree here; no buttery goodness that melts in the mouth. In its simplicity of method, it resembles the fruitcake – and that isn’t saying anything good at all.
Which begs the question. What kind of cake – so simple, so very down-to-earth, despite its very name – could engage in such a seasonal following of mega proportions? By that, of course, I mean the millions – no wait, billions - who consume it every year, who see the Mid-Autumn Festival as incomplete without its appreciation.
I’m of the notion that this humble little confection is a representative. Not just of the moon. But a representative of the mores associated with Chinese culture, a tangible product of intangible appreciations and beliefs. In short, representative of who we are.
To start with, the myth. Yes, the one about the mooncake as Trojan horse in a time of Mongolian occupation. Hidden in its dense, compact filling were said to be messages circulated among the Han Chinese, enabling an organised uprising and restoring rightful rule.
To me, you can’t get more Chinese than that. My Han Chinese culture as I know it is hopelessly devoted to myth-making and general posturing, all strictly enabling one goal: feelings of patriotism towards the motherland. And so at every opportunity we have, be it Mid-Autumn Festival and its appreciation of the mooncake, or the Dragon Boat Festival and the accompanying rice dumpling, we attach a patriotic myth that goes with the festival territory. I remember my Chinese textbooks and the myths therein, all directing young minds to the fact there’s no better land than China.
And so having the mooncake becomes a loaded experience; aside from the Jews, which other people could make food such an emotive, exclusive experience? None, I’d like to believe (I think those patriotic messages are working on me).
Calling it mooncake was also to be appreciative of its roundness. Round means whole, it means perfection – there are no edges, angles, or corners. It means, even, an ideal of family – a perfect union.
Now that the Mongols are out of the way, I must discuss its resemblance. As a part-Chinese child who was never very attuned to Chinese culture, associations with the moon were often lost on me. It doesn’t look like the moon at all, I’d think. Oh well, who cares. Slice number six, please. But my Chinese husband-to-be explained to me how calling it mooncake was also to be appreciative of its roundness. Round means whole, it means perfection – there are no edges, angles, or corners. It means, even, an ideal of family – a perfect union. And so for more traditional families, the first day of every mooncake festival becomes a large family gathering. There develops an exchange of mooncake between aunts and uncles, grandparents and grandchildren, and a sharing at the table of both sweets and gossip. (I should know - I first encountered this at my husband-to-be’s very Chinese family. And it hasn’t left my hips since.)
And finally, I end with its name. Here I address the final Chinese obsession – the moon. I never realised it as a child, but now I see few other parts of the world are so hopelessly enamoured with the moon as we are. The Chinese culture observes the moon, and belabours over its form in exquisite poetry: Lifting my head/I watch the bright moon/Lowering my head/I dream that I’m home. Or so Li Bai wrote. And in my house is a calendar by which dates are written by the shape of the moon; its fullness is the 15th of the month, its roundest is the festival of the Mid-Autumn.
And every year at that time, I purchase unmoulded, baked lumps of fat, flour, sugar and lotus seed – and eat them.
Slicing into one – “with egg yolk or without egg yolk? With seeds or no?” – choosing my slice, adults typically preferring the salted duck egg yolk to temper the sweetness; children, of course, preferring without. Biting into its almost monotonous, brown, dull filling. Receiving, mid-consumption, a small, salty shock of egg. And there, somewhere in between the pastry and the lotus seed, I remember who I am, where I come from.
A comfort, a breath, a remembering, an appreciation that I’m partly Chinese. And for that, I have a cake – which looks nothing like the moon – to thank.