Instead of looking for the man in the moon, try looking for the lady the next time the moon is full. According to Chinese legend, the beautiful and divine lady Chang’e (pronounced chung-er), dwells on the moon, forever pining for her beloved husband on Earth.
When the Chinese community celebrates the Mid-Autumn Festival on Sept. 15, offerings of mooncakes and fresh fruit will be made under the night sky to Chang’e. Sometimes known as the Mooncake or simply, Moon Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival is the second-largest celebration in the Chinese culture, behind only Chinese New Year.
According to the Chinese lunar calendar, the moon will be at its fullest and brightest on this night. All around the world, moon-gazing is the activity of choice. The roundness of the moon symbolizes the completeness of family. Family members near and far reunite for dinner, then step outdoors to continue the celebration. The night is illuminated with paper lanterns – both hung outdoors as well as hand-carried ones.
“We sit together for dinner, go out in the evening, look at the moon and eat mooncakes,” said Nghiep Ho, the owner of Asian grocery store Saigon Market at Findlay Market.
Mooncakes are baked pastries, typically filled with sweet and dense filling like white lotus seed paste, red bean paste or even assorted nuts and candied melon. In spite of the word “cake” in its name, these beauties are neither airy nor light. The thin and tender pastry acts as “skin” to wrap around the generous filling. The cakes take on the shape of their molds, which impart auspicious Chinese writing and intricate designs on the top. Mooncakes can be round or square, ranging from 2 to 3 inches wide and slightly more than 1 inch tall.
Modern spins include snow skin mooncakes, which are no-bake mooncakes made with precooked rice flour “skin” (similar to Japanese mochi). The filling also has expanded to include more global flavors, such as custard, sweet coconut and even strawberry cream cheese.
Bakeries in Asia and in large cities in the United States like New York and Los Angeles turn out a profusion of mooncakes this time of year.
“The bakery was always special,” Ho said, recalling his childhood delight in Vietnam during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Ho migrated from Vietnam with his parents to the United States in 1976.
Traditionally, mooncakes are packed four to a box for purchase, but the current trend is to make the mooncakes smaller and pack more cakes to a box.
There are mooncakes, and then there are yolk-studded mooncakes. These prized mooncakes are filled with salted duck yolk in the center of the sweet paste filling. The pairing of salty yolk and sweet paste may seem unusual; however, similar to the salted caramel flavor in ice cream parlors, the salty and the sweet components balance each other nicely. The duck yolk, resembling the round moon, also bears a significance.
“The round shape means everyone in the family coming together,” explained Joe Chen, owner and head baker at Bread House Bakery in Sharonville, while emphasizing the importance of family unity. (If you want to double down on amassing harmony in the family, look for mooncakes filled with two salted duck yolks.)
Susanna Wong, co-owner of Oriental Wok, described her celebration as “basically eating mooncakes outside with my family and admiring the beauty of the moon.” No matter your tradition, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a great occasion to spend time with loved ones while cherishing the beauty of the night sky -- and don’t forget the mooncakes.
Where to get mooncakes
Here are places around town that will satisfy your craving or even curiosity about mooncakes.
Bread House Bakery: Bread House bakes mooncakes in four flavors, all studded with salted duck yolk: red bean paste, pineapple, mung (green) bean paste and white lotus nut paste. 11974 Lebanon Road, Sharonville. 513-386-9641; www.facebook.com/pages/Bread-House-Bakery/1670759786520320
Kiss Cake Bakery: The bakery makes an assortment of mooncakes, including red bean paste, white lotus nut paste and even roast pork-filled ones. 10400 Reading Road, #120, Evendale. 626-592-7577
Oriental Wok: Oriental Wok will offer house-made mooncakes at both restaurant locations Sept. 10-15. The restaurant also will offer specialty crab cakes during this time to complement the mooncakes. 2444 Madison Road, Hyde Park, 513-871-6888; 317 Buttermilk Pike, Lakeside Park, 859-331-3000. www.orientalwok.com
CAM Asian Supermarket: Arguably the biggest Asian grocery store in Cincinnati, CAM carries a wide assortment of mooncakes, including the no-bake “ice skin” (or snow skin) variety. You will find plenty of selections imported from Hong Kong. Look for the snow skin mooncakes in the freezer section. 10400 Reading Road, #145, Evendale. 513-733-1828; www.facebook.com/CAM-International-Market-Cincinnati-141681989361205/
Saigon Market: Located at Findlay Market, this longstanding Asian grocery store carries the harder-to-find durian-flavored mooncakes. Durian is a potent-smelling Asian fruit that evokes a clear love-or-hate response. Additionally, Saigon Market carries white lotus nut paste, and mixed nuts and candied melon mooncakes. 119 W. Elder St, Over-the-Rhine. 513-721-8053; www.findlaymarket.org/merchants/saigon-market
Y&M Market: This neighborhood Asian grocery market sticks with the essentials. This time of year, however, Y&M stocks up on a moderate selection of mooncakes. 1085 Reading Road, Mason. 513-229-8686; www.facebook.com/pages/YM-asian-market/274729675915587
The legend of Chang’e
There are many legends surrounding the worshipping of the moon, just as there are many versions of the legend of Chang’e. One of them goes like this.
A long time ago, there were 10 suns in the sky. The many suns scorched all manner of vegetation on Earth, and people were dying. Hou Yi, a virtuous man and expert archer, shot down nine of the 10 suns, thus saving Earth. As a reward, the Queen Mother of the West (a goddess) gave Hou Yi the elixir of mortality, but it was only enough for one. Unwilling to outlive his beloved wife, Chang’e, Hou Yi turned the elixir over to her for safekeeping. When one of Hou Yi’s wayward students tried to seize the elixir from Chang’e, she swallowed the elixir to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. Chang’e became immortal and drifted up to the sky, finally stopping at the moon. Heartbroken, Hou Yi set out a table under the sky and made offerings of mooncakes and fruit, his wife’s favorite food. In spite of Hou Yi’s hope of his wife returning to him, the two were forever parted. To this day, the lady in the moon pines for her beloved husband.
Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO Digital. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.