Mid-Autumn Festival: What to Eat
You were just invited to a family reunion dinner by your close friend who also happens to be Chinese. The scene very much reminds you of your own family's Thanksgiving get togethers: overflowing plates of food and bottles of alcohol cover the tables as everyone is preoccupied with catching up on months' worth of life events. But, hold on - everyone's Asian, it's September, and isn't Thanksgiving supposed to be a Western holiday?
The Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival, is the second most important Chinese holiday after the Lunar New Year. Traditionally celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunisolar month, this festival is not only celebrated within China, but also its neighboring countries Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. On Mid-Autumn Festival night, which takes place this year on September 27, the moon is supposed to be the brightest and fullest. A full moon is a symbol of peace, prosperity, and family reunion; therefore, a time to spend with loved ones. Families and friends gather for an elaborate dinner, fuel up for a long night of romantic moon-gazing with candles and lanterns, and munch on traditional desserts such as moon cakes, songpyeon, and dango:
China (月饼) & Vietnam (Bánh Trung Thu)
You're suffering from intense food coma but there is always room for dessert. You don't see ice cream or cookies but spot piles of circular desserts in the corner. What are these foreign objects? Are they even edible?
The moon cake is China's special food of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Not only do people sacrifice moon cakes to the moon as an offering, they eat them for celebration. Typically round and symbolizing the reunion of family and the shape of the full moon, moon cakes are presented to relatives and friends to wish them a long and happy life of prosperity. There are endless filling variations but all consist of a pastry skin enveloping sweet, dense lotus paste. Traditionally, they are also imprinted with the Chinese character for "longevity" to continue the theme of abundance. Don't be scared, just give it a try!
In Vietnam, moon cakes are known as Bánh Trung Thu (literally "Mid-Autumn cake"). Although all are made with two basic parts, the crust and filling, the ingredients can range from dried sausage to bean paste and lotus seeds. Either baked or made with sticky rice, these cakes are sweeter than their Chinese counterparts.
Lung Moon Bakery 83 Mulberry St Chinatown, NY 10013
Unlike the Chinese and Vietnamese, Koreans do not celebrate Chuseok (Mid-Autumn Festival) with moon cakes but rather, with songpyeon, which means "pine tree" in Korean. These traditional sweet rice cakes, which almost look like dumplings, are steamed over a layer of pine-needles and stuffed with ingredients such as sesame seeds, chestnuts, honey, and beans. They are characterized not only by their aromatic fragrance from the pine needles but also their half-moon shape. These delights are the perfect balance of savory and sweet - the chewy outer texture complements the syrupy filling perfectly and before you know it, you will have devoured an entire bowl. Like the Chinese, Korean families gather during this holiday season and enjoy songpyeon under the full moon, wishing themselves and their loved ones a brighter future.
H Mart 38 W 32nd St New York, NY 10001
The Japanese also have their own special Tsukimi, or Mid-Autumn Festival, traditions including displaying decorations made from Japanese pampas grass, offering seasonal produce to the moon, and indulging in their version of rice "dumplings", dango. Like songpyeon, these sweet pockets are created to celebrate the beauty of the moon with their plump half-moon shape. In addition to these delectable rice "dumplings", the Japanese also enjoy bowls of noodles such as soba and udon to celebrate abundance and longevity, each topped with nori and a raw egg.
Sunrise Mart 494 Broome St New York, NY 10012