Food for Thought: Mooncakes and the importance of reunion

Dive into the cultural, political, or personal significance of food

Person in thinking pose with a thought bubble overhead featuring an image of mooncake
A coveted Mid-Autumn Festival treat. Illustration: Alyssa Marie-Umbal / The Peak

By: Nancy La, News Editor

While others anticipate fall as the time for pumpkin spice lattes, September brings me a whole different reason to be excited: the Mid-Autumn Festival. This year, it is on September 21. When I was growing up in Vietnam, the Mid-Autumn Festival was a big deal: kids running around on the streets with their own homemade lanterns (mine was Hello Kitty-shaped), pomelos being offered in shrines, and of course, a giant family dinner followed by the consumption of mooncakes. 

There are various explanations for the origins of the festival, and different southeastern countries have varying origin stories. Being Chinese Vietnamese, my experience with the festival has elements of both cultures. My father explained for Chinese people, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a celebration of the summer harvest, and to give thanks to the moon goddess, Chang’e, in hope she will bring more prosperity in the coming year. The festival also symbolizes familial reunion. According to my father, the saying 人月兩團圓 “people and the moon are both reunited to form a complete circle” — is iconic for the festival. 

In Vietnam, the Mid-Autumn Festival is seen as a children’s festival. There are street parades with lion dances, and various figurines made out of rice paste called tò he are sold as gifts — these, unlike mooncakes, are not edible, as I have found out the hard way.

For both Chinese and Vietnamese culture, the essence of the festival is the mooncakes. The classic version of the mooncake includes lotus seed paste, cured egg yolk, and lots of lard. Despite their heavy ingredients, mooncakes are not greasy or cloyingly sweet, since you are supposed to slice them into small portions and share with family and friends. Pu’erh tea is served alongside the cakes, because the strong and smoky flavours of aged tea leaves cut through the fat coating your tongue from the mooncake. Now you can have another slice without being overwhelmed. 

Besides the classic lotus seed paste filling, there are also mooncakes with nuts and ham, or the newer versions of mooncakes made out of glutinous rice which are meant to be eaten cold. These “snow skin” mooncakes can have fillings like red bean paste, cheese, or fruits. I’ve even had one filled with durian and salted egg yolk. 

No matter what kind of mooncake is eaten, the quintessential spirit of reunion and giving thanks are what make the Mid-Autumn Festival the highlight of September. With the past year and a half being as difficult as it was, sharing (or in my family, fighting over) slices of mooncake with loved ones is a treasured experience.