Made in the moon’s image, the most famous Mid-Autumn festival food are the dense, round pastries known as mooncakes, or yuè bĭng 月饼, given as gifts between family and friends.
It had originally been the tradition to hand-make mooncakes. I live in a dorm. I have no oven and no idea where to start making a mooncake. This year, I joined the majority of people in opting to purchase mine pre-made. From the traditional lotus seed paste and salty duck eggs (the roundness, again), to sweeter flavors like taro and pineapple paste, there are an unpredictable variety of fillings to choose from.
Beyond their role as snack and traditional gift, mooncakes are something of a cultural icon. Legend has it that secret military plans baked into mooncakes helped in a Han uprising against the ruling Mongols during the Yuan dynasty, letting the Ming revolutionaries spread messages coordinating their attack. This year, the Wall Street Journal ran photos of pandas in Guangzhou province being fed special bamboo-powder mooncakes for the holiday. Even merchants like Starbucks and Häagen-Dazs have gotten in on the game, creating for sale their own versions of mooncake-shaped sweets.
Mooncake-giving has also become linked to status, and in some cases, corruption, when incredibly lavish cakes are given to politically and socially influential figures in the hopes of gaining favor. Gifts to officials in past years have reportedly included gold-encrusted cakes stuffed with sharkfin and other expensive delicacies, and beautiful boxes with room for hiding bribes. This year, demand for these most luxurious mooncakes is said to be down following the new president’s emphasis on cracking down on corruption. Mine were a more garden-variety, picked up from the grocery store, shoved into a flimsy plastic bag and weighed by the gram. It was a little more than 14 yuan for the dozen I got, or about two dollars - nowhere near the highest-priced boxes that sell for hundreds.
All this and despite my best efforts, I still have no idea what the majority of the filling flavors were.