The only comprehensive mooncake study appears to be Sienna Parulis-Cook’s 2009 masters’ thesis for the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In the 34-page paper, she cites a widely-held Chinese anecdote explaining how mooncakes were once “used by rebels to promulgate a major uprising against the Yuan Dynasty.” Mooncakes were “big business” in urban China by the late nineteenth century, she adds, and about a century ago, they were stamped with patriotic slogans and incorporated into national day celebrations.
Mooncakes can be emotionally moving. Wang Xiao Jian, a 27-year-old woman in Beijing, told me of a song that her late-grandfather, a tailor, once sang to her in the years leading up to his death. It chronicled how soldiers in China’s Red Army were retuning to their families and looking forward to teaching their grandchildren how to make mooncake. “It’s the best memory grandpa gave me," she said.
Although salted egg and lotus seed-green bean are among China’s most popular mooncake fillings, there are regional variations, such as nutty mooncakes in Beijing and extra-flaky ones in the eastern province of Suzhou. Mooncakes also vary widely across the Asia-Pacific region. Hong Kong, for example, has not yet seen “any mooncake having meat,” says Dr. Chan Yuk Wak, a professor at Hong Kong’s city university, while in Vietnam, traditional mooncakes are loaded with sausage, pork and lard.
Other, less official, mooncake tales abound. A brochure I picked up in the lobby of a hotel in Hanoi claims mooncakes were once “served only in Royal families.” An English-language chapbook about the mid-autumn festival in Vietnam says mooncakes are best eaten three days after baking so that oil can better seep into their shells. And the website chinatownology.com cites a legend asserting that mooncakes were “instrumental” in China’s overthrow of the Mongol dynasty because residents passed notes to each other, hidden in mooncakes, calling for an uprising.
But a common refrain across the region is that teens and 20-somethings are less excited about mooncake than their parents once were. According to Parulis-Cook, that could be because they don’t like the taste, don’t want to gain weight or are worried about food safety issues. Some young people in China and Hong Kong now eat uber-trendy mooncakes with names like “strawberry balsamic” or “Snowskin Banana with low-fat yoghurt.” Others eat none at all.
Nguyen Manh Hung, a 29-year-old Vietnamese chef, says he would never give his mother, whom he calls “very traditional,” a mooncake with a trendy filling like sticky rice or chocolate. However, he also thinks culinary innovation is healthy, and he buys more-adventurous mooncakes for his own nuclear family. “The traditional mooncakes are boring, and younger people don’t like to eat them too much,” he told me at the Hanoi Cooking Centre. “Nowadays it’s fashionable to want something different.”
Once a year, Hung bakes his own. It’s a labor of love: Sugar water must be cooked and then distilled in water for an entire year before it can be incorporated into batter, and assembling a traditional Vietnamese mooncake — which can include about 10 different salted ingredients — takes up to two days.
He may be in the vanguard of a shift toward DIY mooncakes. Kho, the New York-based food blogger, says he bakes his own mooncakes in Harlem. And in Beijing, editors at the Chinese food magazine Betty’s Kitchen tell Sienna Parulis-Cook, the American mooncake connoisseur, that although most apartments in China don’t come with ovens, many Chinese are buying stand-along ones and learning how to bake sweets, including cookies and mooncakes.
Parulis-Cook, now 28 and a dining editor for a Beijing-based English-language magazine, once baked ice cream mooncakes with help from a recipe she found in Betty’s Kitchen. But she doesn’t much care for the taste of most mooncakes, and usually re-gifts the eight to 10 mooncakes she receives each lunar autumn from business associates to her Chinese colleagues.
Still she adds, “If I get more than my boss, it makes me feel really influential.”