THE CHINESE Mid-Autumn Festival, sometimes referred to simply as the Mooncake Festival, is an example of how cultural traditions change.
I grew up, as a Tsinoy (Chinese-Filipino) being told that the festival came out of a revolt by the Han Chinese people against the ruling Yuan dynasty in the 14th century. Messages were concealed in mooncakes, urging people to rebel on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month.
Only much later did I learn that the Mid-Autumn Festival has existed for many centuries, a complicated agrarian festival in honor of the moon. Today, the Mid-Autumn Festival is intended more for family reunions, emphasizing harmony and unity, and families telling each other moon legends.
In some communities, lion and dragon dances are performed. The festival is also an occasion for courtship and matchmaking with some of the national minorities of China. Lanterns are important in the celebrations, including floating sky lanterns.
The Vietnamese also celebrate Tet Trung Thu (Festival Mid-Autumn) and its importance is second only to the Vietnamese New Year. Lanterns are used by the Vietnamese; taking a modern twist, the lanterns now show such characters as Sponge Bob and Hello Kitty. There’s also lion dancing and giving of lucky money (similar to our angpao or red packs).
In the Philippines, local Chinese have kept some of the mainland Chinese traditions, mainly the mooncakes, and a dice game (puah tiong-chiu) where the prizes are different sizes of mooncakes. We don’t do the lanterns or lion dances here.
There’s a frenzied exchange of mooncakes just like Christmas gifts, but on a smaller scale. The mooncakes also have some kind of a status attached, with the imported ones from Hong Kong or Taiwan considered of higher status. These use traditional recipes of lotus seed paste and duck egg yolks and are very expensive, running more than a hundred pesos per piece.
Local versions use bean (red, green, black) paste, and in the last few years, I’ve seen versions that look more like hopia. Five-star hotels have cashed in, offering expensive mooncakes in elaborate boxes with new twists—like pineapple and mango fillings.
Glow sticks and durian mooncakes
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (SCMP) had articles recently, examining some of the changes in the festivities. One is the use of glow sticks instead of the lanterns; but this practice could change as well with environmentalist groups protesting that these sticks are extremely hard to recycle, and the chemicals responsible for the glowing could damage the environment, if not human health.
The mooncakes themselves are also changing, if you look at an SCMP review of the eight best mooncakes this season. The Peninsula had durian mooncakes, at HK$888 for eight mooncakes. That’s P680 per mooncake! The SCMP’s review was mixed, acknowledging the durian aroma to be strong but noting that the durian filling itself lacked the rich and creamy texture of the fruit.
Maxim’s Pop-up, one of the high-end food stores, received praises for using fresh pineapple.
One restaurant offered mooncakes using rose jam, with small bits of roselle. Talking about roselle, many Filipinos are unaware that it is a popular plant, used for tea, in many parts of Asia. At UP Diliman, after the sunflowers, we arranged for its planting, guided by a roselle enthusiast Dr. Elizabeth Protacio Castro of the psychology department. Roselle has a nice maroon color, just right for UP and it can be harvested to produce ingredients for beverages, jams and flavorings.
Notice too how in Hong Kong (and mainland China, as well as in Taiwan), there’s been a craze for exotic tropical food products, as is reflected in the high-end mooncakes’ fillings: mango, pineapple, ube, pandan. In China you’ll find many food stores offering different pastries with these tropical delicacies, and I wonder how much our local producers are tapping into this huge market, if at least to balance our many imports of Chinese fruits.
. . . and ‘kamote’ mooncakes?
The Chinese’s new affluence produces all kinds of demands in food. If I might get back to the mooncakes, the SCMP review included mooncakes from a Kyoto-based merchant who has produced, just for Hong Kong, two different fillings for the mooncakes: matcha (green tea) paste and Japanese sweet potato.
Sweet potato? That’s our lowly kamote. I did see Japanese sweet potato cakes just last weekend at Jipan, a wonderful Japanese bakery on Pilar Street in San Juan, and I can tell you they will change your mind about kamote.
Before my mother became ill, she would buy dozens of mooncakes to distribute to relatives and friends, whether ethnic Chinese or not—much like Christmas gifts. I had to take over that responsibility since but find myself giving out fewer mooncakes, in part because her generation is passing on and, for the remaining ones, I would prefer to see them live much, much longer. Sadly, many of the mooncakes are just too high in all the forbidden pleasures—sugar, sodium, cholesterol and even fat. Fat? Yes, some mooncakes use ham.
There are mooncakes being offered now with labels that proclaim they’re low in sugar, or egg-less, or both. Others claim to use organic sugar. There was also someone supplying Fo Guang Shan Buddhist temple with vegetarian mooncakes, but I wasn’t able to check this year.
Will this festival stay on? Maybe, but I wonder about the mooncakes. The SCMP cites a survey showing that 60 percent of Hongkongers did not like receiving mooncakes as gifts. The complaints are linked mainly to having too many mooncakes which can’t be consumed. Maybe we’ll find people cutting down on the numbers of mooncakes to give, and instead find a shift of outdoing each other with exotic ingredients. Maybe more of artisanal (home-made) mooncakes? (Which reminds me, people are always writing to ask me if I know the recipe for hopia. I’m afraid not, but if anyone knows and is willing to share, do e-mail me and I’ll spread it around.)
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.