After Chinese New Year, the next biggest cultural event for the Chinese would have to be Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節) falling on the 15th day of the eighth month on the lunar calendar. The 15th of each calendar month is always a full moon, hence some calendar years will have 12 months while every now and again there is a ‘leap year’ with 13 months. The eighth month which falls in the middle of autumn for those in the northern hemisphere and, in a time when most people farmed for a living, signals the end of harvest season. The festival celebrates hopefully a plentiful harvest with excess fresh food preserved, dried or pickled to last through the colder months of the year.
The full moon during this month is said to be at its largest and roundest, which signifies completeness and togetherness, and is as good a reason as any for a family gathering. Dinner is followed by the sharing of mooncakes, pastries made traditionally in carved wooden moulds with a chewy pastry shell enclosing a filling most commonly of lotus seed paste and a salted duck egg yolk or yolks. A seemingly strange combination, the contrast of the smooth, sweet and thick lotus seed paste is quite enjoyable against the slightly salty, almost grainy texture of the duck egg yolk.
Mooncakes are not cheap due to the labour involved in making the lotus seed paste – getting the colour and taste right is an artform, as is achieving an evenly thin pastry skin to hold together its contents. I bought a mini mooncake for the husband and myself this year as they are quite rich and we don’t crave them as much as when we were children. There are many locally-produced brands as well as a broad range of imported ones these days. The packaging rarely changes for easier recognition, although generally come in tins as opposed to cardboard boxes like during my mother’s childhood. The ones pictured just happen to be one of the brands I grew up with.
I lived for a few years in Hong Kong when I was a teenager and thoroughly enjoyed celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival there, as I did other Chinese festivals. Mid-Autumn Festival meant stationery and toy stores would have elaborate displays of paper lanterns for purchase as well as, at the time, new-fangled electric versions – these are basically a torch with a toy-shaped cover. Fruit stores would be full of pomelos and starfruit, both in season at this time of year north of the equator. Dinner and mooncakes were followed by a trip to a nearby park to play with pre-purchased paper lanterns. They are lit up by small candles held in place by a small metal clasp within the lantern on the base. This was the only time when we were allowed to play with fire – albeit under adult supervision, of course – and the lanterns would invariably end up catching alight meaning it was time to go home.
Last night we had dinner out with our mothers, Monsieur Poisson’s cousins and a cousin of mine who is back visiting Sydney for the first time since he graduated from university and returned to Hong Kong. We had lobster, crispy chicken, whole steamed barramundi and deep-fried milk amongst other things but the food was actually not the focus for me. This food blogger took a night off from photographing what was being eaten for once – this is a bittersweet time of year for me so I am most grateful to have the company of family around.
Strangely, Monsieur Poisson decided to take photos on his phone instead!
happy mid-autumn festival & happy eating!