Yuebing: A Quick Guide to Mooncakes

The end of this week sees China’s second biggest traditional festival. 中秋节 Zhōngqiū Jié, or in English, Middle Autumn Festival. You may also hear it referred to as Moon, or mooncake Festival. Veneration of the moon goes back a long way in Chinese history, with offerings of food, fruits and wine on household altars, moon appreciation rituals, and moon cakes (月饼 yuèbing).  It is of course this foody aspect of the festival that has truly gone global in the 21st century.

In ancient China, moon veneration was not only a folk tradition, but one marked by imperial rites, and early versions of these cakes were part of the royal ceremonies to the Sun in Spring, and in the Autumn, to the moon, so they were also called Gongbing (palace cakes). Other legends regarding their origin tell of the general returning triumphant from his military campaign during the reign of Emperor Gaozu of Tang. Among the foods that welcomed him home were a tribute of cakes from Turpan merchants, which is why they are also sometimes called hubing (foreign cakes).

During the Qing Dynasty, moon cake legends were in abundance, including the well-known one of yuebing with tiny scrolls of paper hidden inside, being used to pass secret messages (apparently the inspiration for Fortune Cookies). In the Guangdong version of these stories, the messages were in resistance to the occupying forces, elsewhere, these were messages between members of secret societies.

The moon appears at its fullest on the 15th of the eighth lunar month. The full and round moon has its own set of symbols in many cultures, full stomachs (before the hardships of winter draw in), a time to reflect. That perfect-seeming round form specific connotation in Chinese culture. The Hanyu term for reunion, is 团圆, tuányuán, literally gathering round. The idea of coming together as a family was also reflected in early moon cakes, which were fairly large. After offerings were made, the seniors of the family would cut the cake, and serve one slice to each member of the family, with pieces kept back for absent members. With the large traditional families, big cakes were needed.

By the Ming Dynasty, the custom of gifting others with yuebing had become popular, and over time they began to decrease in size, and adopted ever more intricate patterns on the top, the range of which expanded from lunar scenes of jade rabbits and toads to other auspicious objects, creatures and typographical designs.

There are hundreds of fantastic regional varieties of mooncake. The most well known globally is the Guangzhou mooncake, with its thin baked golden skin, thick smooth filling, typically of red bean paste, lotus or coconut, and one or two salted egg yolks in the middle symbolising the moon. Other regions in Guangdong have their own distinct styles, such as Chaozhou’s Pangbing, or puff cakes, characterised by their delicate puff pastry skin, not-too-sweet textured fillings of green bean or taro, and sometimes a centre filling of egg yolk or even seafood!

Jing style mooncakes, also known as Gong (Court) style, originate in Beijing, Tianjin and are generally eaten in north China. They are one of the most complex varieties to make, with four types of skin and three types of filling, which include meticulously prepared Miyun dates and mixed nuts. The Hu style, generally found in Shanghai and Jiangnan regions, have a slightly thicker skin that is creamy and crispy, and fairly smoothly textured fillings of walnut, pine nut, or candied and finely shredded meat.

Two very popular savoury styles of yuebing are the Su and Dian styles. The Su mooncake, eaten around China’s eastern regions of Jiangzhe is known for its crispy, light pastry skin, thinly wrapped around the ample filling of bean paste and fresh pork. Dian style mooncakes from Yunnan are also known as Yuntui yuebing, because they feature the area’s famous Xuanwei cured haml the hard, dark outer skin made using Kunming Purple Wheat, offsetting the crumbling inner skin and savoury filling. The Qu style is usually filled with sesame, osmanthus, and the Hui style stuffed with wild local vegetables.

Every year, we are offered countless new varieties, from fruit fillings, to tea and custards, seafood, cheese and ice cream, even medicinal herbs and health supplements. One type which is earning its way into the moon cake tradition, is the Ice Skin mooncake (冰皮 Bingpi), with its shell made of sticky rice rather than a wheat-based pastry, and eaten chilled. This year I’ve also discovered Yincai mooncakes, which have a translucent jelly skin, and are also taken chilled, as well as a collection of “French style” mooncakes, which may appear to be traditional from the outside, but when cut, reveal very western influences in their fillings of blueberry, chocolate or coffee cream.

It’s not just the yuebing themselves that have evolved, but the way they are presented. Traditionally, they were wrapped in paper and packed into thin card boxes, but since the 1960s, these came to be replaced by brightly coloured metal tins printed with gorgeous traditional art, and hoarded by several generations for storing anything from buttons and sewing supplies to ticket stubs and mementos. I have memories of stowing away stickers and crayons in them, and still use them to organise patches, postcards and stationery.Whilst I understand there are many reasons this tradition has waned, such as rocketing costs and environmental concerns, I do miss seeing the rows of shining tins, depicting Chang’E, or lotus blossoms, all vying to grace your gift bags, and hope that the tins we have will find appreciative homes in the future.

Today, Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the prime occasions for companies like Tencent, Baidu and Sina to connect with their customers, and they go all out on every year’s promotional mooncake designs, with packaging that you can reuse as lanterns once you’ve finished the cake, or elaborate traditionally painted wooden lunch boxes. The Sanxingdui Museum in Sichuan have even created a special range, with moulds based on their famous ancient ceremonial mask collection. This year, a DIY ethos has taken China, with customisable moulds in the shops and online, with which to make your own yuebing, being all the rage.

Whatever the style, variety or type of moon cake you eventually pluck for, the central message remains, that even ‘individual’ yuebing are for sharing. Whether you have received one, bought one for your family, or made it yourself, I wish you a great evening eating it with your relatives, friends and other loved ones.



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