Many in Hong Kong will have mooncakes sitting forlornly in their refrigerators today, or mooncake vouchers “gifted” by friends and business associates that they don’t know how to get rid of. I’m not a fan of traditional Cantonese-style mooncakes, the greasy confectionery filled with lotus-seed paste and salted egg yolks that sits in the guts for days. I am, however, partial to the more contemporary versions that feature chocolate, custard and even durian. I hear traditionalists scoff, but I’m fairly certain that when lotus-seed paste and egg yolks were first used as mooncake filling – we’re not sure when – the traditionalists of the day would have dismissed it as a new-fangled contrivance.
The association of round cakes with the Mid-Autumn Festival started when the Tang dynasty’s Emperor Xizong, who reigned 873-888, presented cakes and red silk during the festival to scholars who passed the imperial examinations.
By the Song period, mooncakes had become de rigueur festival fare. A Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) text describes mooncakes as soft, flat cakes that were steamed and had no filling – very different to the baked mooncakes we see today. By the early 19th century, mooncakes in the Yangtze Delta region were filled with walnuts and a soft paste sweetened with cane sugar. The lotus-seed paste we’re familiar with is just one of many kinds of mooncake fillings across China, which include pulverised beans, seeds, nuts, dried fruit and even ham, and some of the newer fillings we see today may well become widespread traditions of the future.