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Mooncakes and memories mark celebration of Mid-Autumn Festival

image shows a mooncake, a pastry-like dessert that is brown and has a floral design on top. This one is square and has a golden crust and cake body.
Megan Schellong
Mooncakes are eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival. They represent completeness and family reunion. The one pictured here is filled with lotus paste and salted duck egg yolk.

Today is the Mid-Autumn Festival.

During the holiday, people of Southeast and East Asian cultures make and exchange mooncakes, gathering with friends and family to eat good food.

This year, to reconnect with my culture, I took to the kitchen to bake and celebrate.

Growing up as a transracial adoptee, I didn’t celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more intentional with immersing myself in Chinese culture.

Thousands of years ago in ancient China, people worshipped the moon and made sacrifices to it for a good harvest. It's around this time of year when the moon is thought to be the brightest and fullest.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is also associated with a couple of different myths involving the reunion between the Moon Goddess of Immortality, Chang’e, and her husband, an archer named Hou Yi.

“The gist of it was that she somehow got put to the moon, and once a year, they're able to see each other on Mid-Autumn Festival,” explained Jeffrey Tsang, who was born and raised in Hong Kong.

Jeffrey Tsang in his kitchen after baking a type of French cream puff called choux au craquelin.
Courtesy of Jeffrey Tsang
Jeffrey Tsang in his kitchen after baking a type of French cream puff called choux au craquelin.

Now working for Michigan State University, Tsang marks the Mid-Autumn Festival by gathering with loved ones and watching the moon.

“[It] always revolves around a big meal, a big feast at home, so all my extended family will come over,” he said.

Tsang, an avid baker who likes to share his creations on social media, points to the mooncake as one of the central parts of the festival.

“Mooncakes are called 'mooncakes' because they look like the moon and they're typically a pastry that is filled,” he said.

Mooncakes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from squares to circles. And they vary based on geography, too.

In South Korea, songpyeon, 송편, look like half-moons and can be either sweet or semi-sweet depending on the region.

Bánh trung thu from Vietnam can be baked or made with sticky rice.

For this year's holiday, Tsang baked a mix of traditional Chinese mooncakes or yuèbĭng, 月饼, including some new takes on the classic flavors.

“I made a red bean paste as one of the fillings and I did a lotus paste," Tsang said. "Then I made a caramel almond filling for one of the mooncakes. And the last one was honey pistachio."

Like Tsang, I was up for the challenge and made my own mooncakes this year.

Follow Megan's mooncake bake

My favorite is one of the more popular versions, consisting of sweet lotus paste and a salted duck egg, which makes for a nice balance of flavors.

I headed to the store to pick up a handful of ingredients — peanut oil for the paste, lye water for the cake’s signature brown color and sugary golden syrup.

To bake the mooncakes, I enlisted the help of my friend, Dorothy Xiao. This was also her first-time making mooncakes.

16 baked mooncakes, some square some circular, with floral designs appear on a baking tray with parchment paper.
Jeffrey Tsang
Jeffrey Tsang's mooncakes.

“I've always heard that this is very complicated," said Xiao.

We began the process by using the lotus paste and dough I prepared the day before.

As we weighed the paste and dough into equal parts, Xiao explained that the Mid-Autumn Festival is similar to celebrations we have in the U.S.

“It's a Chinese version of Thanksgiving,” she said.

Xiao grew up celebrating the holiday every year in her hometown of Hángzhōu, China. But she didn’t realize how important mooncakes were to her until after she moved to America 10 years ago.

She reflected on one year she almost missed the Mid-Autumn Festival.

"Because I was too busy with school and everything, I wasn't aware of the time," Xiao recalled.

Once she realized it was time to celebrate the holiday, Xiao went to a Hong Kong café in East Lansing to buy a mooncake.

"But everything was sold out," she said. "And I just felt so sad."

Xiao was surprised by those feelings.

"I never thought I would have cared about mooncake so much," Xiao recollected. "I don't even like the flavor!"

From that point on, Xiao was determined to mark the annual celebration, by having a mooncake to serve as a reminder of where she came from.

"That's kind of the way for me to remind myself of my connection to the culture where I'm from. And that's also a way to reinforce my identity,” she said.

Four mooncakes cut in half on a wood tray, each with a different flavor: red bean, lotus paste, honey pistachio and caramel almond filling.
Jeffrey Tsang baked mooncakes with four different flavor fillings this year — red bean, lotus paste, caramel almond and honey pistachio.

Between rolling the dough and finalizing the mooncakes, we ran into a tiny problem. After chilling overnight in the fridge, our dough was too crumbly.

"I feel bad that we’re Chinese here, but we cannot, we don't know what to do with it,” she said.

We ended up consulting an expert for tips: YouTube. To rehydrate the dough, we added some more liquid, in this case, I used golden syrup, peanut oil, and just a little bit more lye water.

Xiao suggested we make just one mooncake as a trial run, just to see how it turns out. That way, we could readjust the dough proportions if needed.

After putting our one tester into the oven, we waited a few minutes. Of course, no baking experiment is complete without a proper taste test.

“Not too sweet,” Xiao said. “Perfect mixture of different flavors. Everything is so fresh, I love it.”

“Not too sweet” is the ultimate compliment, which means we passed the test.

And now my heart and belly are a bit fuller—just like the moon at this time of year.

WKAR's Megan Schellong serves the mooncakes she baked for her colleagues at the station to enjoy. They were yummy!

Megan Schellong hosted and produced Morning Edition on WKAR from 2021 to 2024.
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