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Mid-Autumn Festival: Mooncakes keep changing, but one thing stays the same

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Mid-Autumn Festival (or Mooncake Festival) may be the second most important annual celebration after Lunar New Year, but it’s only been in recent years I’ve really appreciated it.

And this year with COVID-19, its emphasis on family reunion makes it resonate even more.

Growing up in Australia where the Lunar calendar was really most relevant in my family for finding out when New Year would be, it was sometimes easy to forget the vague time between mid-September and early October when Mid-Autumn would fall.

For me, it was really the storefronts of Asian groceries that announced the time for mooncakes was approaching, with their high stacks of gold and brightly coloured metallic boxes (perfect for storing coloured pencils and textas as a child), each competing for your attention.

It was like seeing the first Christmas tree pop up in shopping centres seemingly earlier and earlier each year: is it that time already?

Time for what, exactly? Well, firstly there’s the mooncakes themselves.

Coming from a Hong Kong family, the ones we grew up with were sweet lotus seed mooncakes filled with a salty egg yolk, its orange circle commanding you to think of The Moon (The Moon has excellent branding).

We would clear the table after dinner, and cut each palm-sized cake into eight pieces, and have but a segment or two with hot tea — the cake’s sweetness and the festival’s focus on family reunion making it definitely one to share.

Eating foods that remind you of family far away

In the early ’80s before moon cakes were available in Australia, my mum tried to make her own using a recipe from a cookbook for overseas Chinese, Chopsticks Recipes Cakes and Breads, published in 1979.

To make mooncakes, you need molds to create the ornate patterns that adorn the top of each cake. But because Mum couldn’t buy any molds in Sydney, she used… tuna fish cans instead.

Her pencilled notes in the recipe show that she halved the ingredients to make six tuna fish cans’ worth of mooncakes, probably because there were few family members and friends to share them with. Or a shortage of tuna fish cans.

The trusty old Chopsticks Recipes Cakes and Breads cookbook, published in 1979.(Supplied)

For Mum, it wasn’t so much about the accuracy of the baking, but the act of making.

“When you move away from your family, you think of them more at festival times throughout the year,” she says.

“So you make foods that remind you of them, even if they are not exactly the same foods you ate together.”

In the last few years, I have especially loved this time of year because of all the varieties of mooncake that appear on social media and in the shops.

They’re new to my Cantonese eyes and tastebuds and I love learning more about the many tastes of China and the Chinese diaspora.

There’s the Malaysian take with pandan lotus seed paste, coconut taro and lotus seed paste, and rose and red bean paste, all wrapped with a flaky pastry.

Last year, I was delighted to see a rainbow-coloured pastry with a red bean paste centre in a Taiwanese bakery in Sydney, and I also remember marvelling at the spirit of the pro-democracy mooncakes in Hong Kong.

This year, seeing mooncake filled with fish and mooncake filled with roast chicken on social media has completely made my day.

One thing stays the same about this time of year

As well as loving on mooncakes, there’s also loving the actual Moon itself.

I only learned recently that Mid-Autumn Festival actually goes for three days and nights.

There’s the actual night of Mid-Autumn Festival, which is the time to admire The Moon at its brightest and fullest, but the night before is for welcoming The Moon, and the night after is for chasing The Moon.

The festival, being a time for family reunion, of course this makes you think of the family who — for whatever reason — can’t be there with you for that family meal.

There is, however, the consolation that wherever you are in the world, you can look up at night and see the same moon at its fullest, however fleeting this is.

And that’s what I love so much about this time of year. It’s a reminder that amid all the uncertainty of our everyday lives, we make time for contemplation and gaze at The Moon, whose light brightens each of our night skies.

Three green coloured moon cakes on a plate.
Modern-day mooncakes now come in a variety of flavours and designs.(Pixabay: Scribbling Geek)

For all the changing mooncake varieties, one thing stays the same about this time of year for me.

My parents and I make sure we have dinner together. It’s just a simple, regular dinner, with not a tuna fish can in sight. It’s just the three of us — much of our family lives overseas now — but we’re together, however fleeting that is.

After dinner, we’ll send messages to family interstate and overseas to say Happy Mid-Autumn Festival.

What it’s really saying is: “I’m thinking of you. You matter to me. I wish we could eat sweet things together.”

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