A piece of the harvest moon

Published September 18, 2021, 3:00 PM

by Aaron Cabeza

The mooncake isn’t just full and round, which in Chinese belief means blessings—it is fortune and flavor descended from the skies

MID-AUTUMN TRIO Three kinds of Hilton mooncakes are the red bean paste with single yolk, white lotus with single yolk, and mixed nuts

Most events are tied to food. Think puto bumbong for Christmas in the Philippines. Think turkey for the American thanksgiving. Think meat abstinence for Holy Week. When we celebrate, we celebrate food, but sometimes we also simply associate food with certain world events, whether because food was the cause of them or we attach symbolic meaningS to these events that are best expressed by food. Let’s see—the Naval Battle of the Cheese between Uruguay and Brazil in 1865, the Boston Tea Party of 1773, and the Salt March of India in the 1930s.

But mooncake—ah, the name alone conjures up myths and legends!

Best of all, the mooncake is a great-tasting delicacy, too, but like many Chinese food items tied to celebrations, it’s a symbol more than anything. Associated with the mid-autumn festival, traditionally the second biggest celebration, after Chinese New Year, not only in the Chinese calendar but more and more around the world, the mooncake for the Chinese represents love and togetherness within a family.

In ancient times, you would eat a mooncake while looking up at the harvest moon, the roundest and the fullest of the year’s full moons. Make a wish, give thanks, or honor the gods while you partake of blessings under a moonlit sky. In Chinese belief, full and round means blessings, but the mooncake isn’t only full and round, often packed with flavors, it is to the faithful also a piece of the harvest moon.

AUSPICIOUS PASTRY Hilton mooncakes

The mid-autumn holiday dates back more than 3,000 years to the Northern Song Dynasty in China. There are various origin tales for the festival, but most of them center on the love story between the beautiful goddess Chang’e and her lover, a renowned archer named Hou Yi. The story centers on how Yi saved the mortal world when 10 suns unexpectedly rose over the sky one year. The archer shot down nine of those suns, earning him an elixir of immortality from Xi Wangmu, the immortal queen mother of the west. Instead of taking it, however, he chose to stay in the mortal world with his love, and gave the potion to Chang’e, who kept it in her possession.

Knowing of this elixir, Yi’s apprentice Feng Meng broke into the couple’s home while his master was hunting. When he forced Chang’e to give him the potion, she refused and swallowed it, flying off to the sky. Because she didn’t want to be far from her husband, she chose to live on the moon. When Yi returned home and learned of the events that had transpired, the heartbroken husband offered fruits and cakes in their yard to memorialize his wife. When people learned what happened, they too decided to worship the moon each year on the anniversary of these events, on the 15th day of the eighth month, when the moon was at its brightest and fullest.

Thousands of years later, we enjoy them with family—or because it’s the pandemic, enjoying them separately.