Deciphering the Mystical Mooncake

By Balcony Media Group | On Sep. 22, 2014

“A full moon hangs high in the chilly sky, all say it’s the same everywhere, round and bright.”

So begins the first line of a poem by Li Qiao, one of many Chinese to be captivated by the Tang Dynasty’s new and elaborate celebrations of the mid-autumn full moon.

Fast-forward to Hanoi in September 2014, when the city is abuzz with preparations for the Moon Festival, or Children’s Festival as it’s called in Vietnam. On September 8, a lantern-carrying procession will snake its way around Hoan Kiem Lake, troupes of lion dancers will perform door-to-door for lucky money, and that indispensable delicacy – the mooncake – will be offered within families, schools and businesses as a gesture of goodwill.

At the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, L’Epicerie handcrafts some of the city’s most-loved mooncakes in flavors both original and traditional. For this year’s Moon Festival, Executive Sous Chef Thanh Van has come up with new varieties, such as caramel and dry fig, green bean and dry apricot, and red bean and berries.

These soft, heavy cakes are loaded not only–as you may have heard–with calories, but with ancient history and tradition. Take for example the shape of the cake, typically round, symbolizing completeness and unity—one of the reasons families strive to be together on this day, and the 15th day of the 8th lunar month is one of the most popular days for Vietnamese weddings.

The crust of the mooncake, either flaky pastry or tender ‘snow-skin’, is traditionally stamped with the Chinese symbol for longevity or harmony. In the past, the cakes sometimes held a secret message that could be deciphered by slicing into eighths and rearranging the pieces. There are even tales of peasant uprisings that were coordinated via messages baked and smuggled in mooncakes.
The mooncakes you try in Hanoi are not likely to hide revolutionary secrets, but may be imprinted with images of rabbits or flowers, or a picture of the mythical moon goddess of immortality, Chang’e.

Much of the allure of the Moon Festival originates with the legend of Chang’e. There are several versions of the story, but all of them revolve around a beautiful woman who took an immortality pill and unexpectedly floated away from earth. Some versions have Chang’e choosing the moon as her residence to be close to her stricken husband, who would arrange her favorite foods on an altar facing the moon, and light lanterns to illuminate her former home.

You don’t have to be a moon-worshipper to enjoy the mooncake’s dense, luxurious texture and delightful fillings. Traditionally, the thin pastry cover encloses a filling of lotus seed or red bean paste, which in turn envelops one or several salted egg yolks.

The moon-like yolks are admittedly an acquired taste, but after several centuries of mid-autumn festivals the mooncake has evolved beyond the imagination of even the ancient Chinese mythologists. There is a mooncake for every taste with fillings as diverse as durian, ice-cream, minced pork, chocolate, abalone, and even pearl dust.

If you’re in Hanoi this September, pour some tea, slice a few mooncakes and share a late-night chat with the other guests in the courtyard. You’ll know Lady Chang’e smiles her approval if the full moon’s reflection appears in your teacup at midnight.

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