In Chinese culture, every major lunar calendar holiday has associated legends.
For the mid-autumn festival, there is the story of Houyi, an archer who saves a burned earth by shooting nine suns out of the sky.
Houyi’s reward is an immortality elixir that allows him to ascend to heaven. When his apprentice steals the potion, Houyi’s wife, Chang’e, swallows it to protect it. She floats away to the moon and her husband is left on the ground. They are separated forever.
In 2021, it may be appropriate for a narrative of separation to mark an occasion that is usually about togetherness. The mid-autumn festival takes place on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month (usually mid-September to October), and celebrates the harvest and when the moon looks clearest in the sky.
The festival is observed in China and East Asia, from Singapore to Japan. Families gather at home for an evening party and children parade with glowing paper lanterns. Under the moonlight, people share tea and mooncakes, small cakes traditionally filled with salted egg yolk and lotus seed paste. This year, the most important holiday is September 21st.
“Mid-Autumn Festival is all about reunion,” says Junda Khoo, owner-chef of Ho Jiak Malaysian restaurants in Strathfield and Haymarket. “More important than the food or mooncakes, it’s about the family being together.”
In Malaysia, Khoos amah (grandmother) made a family party. “The food is different for each family, depending on where in China your ancestors come from. We usually had tau eu bak (soy-braised pork), assam nyonya fish and steamed chicken.”
To do this, the family ate mooncakes and seaweed yuen, glutinous rice balls cooked in sugar syrup, pandan and ginger. “My grandmother ate a rice ball for each of us to symbolize our obedience,” Khoo says.
Michael Thai from Cabramatta Institution Bau Truong fondly recalls Vietnamese festivities this fall. “We call it Tet Trung Thu or the Children’s Festival,” he says, “as a child it’s massive. Streets are full of stalls selling handmade bamboo and paper lanterns.
“We always tried to organize a children’s lantern parade in the neighborhood, but the festival coincides with the monsoon season and it always rains. Next year we will forget the rain and make our plans again.”
Vietnamese mooncakes are unique and almost impossible to find in Sydney. Some are shaped like pigs, from cute smiling heads to sows piglets. There are also banh deo sticky rice cakes with a structure similar to Japanese mochi.
“Banh deo is made from sticky rice flour and the skin is very thick,” says Thai. “Because Vietnam is tropical, we have coconut filling and mung beans mixed with durian.”
Just as Khoos is reminiscent of celebrating in Malaysia, family reunions usually take place at home. “It’s rare that you would go out and eat,” Thai says.
This is partly because an important ritual is the offering of the moon. “We have a round table in front of the house. There is an incense burner, fruit moon cake, taro and cu au, a kind of water chestnut we only have at this time of year.”
Thai Kee IGA has been a fixture in Haymarket for 25 years. For the Mid-Autumn Festival, the family-owned supermarket usually sets up stalls in Market City adorned with lanterns.
“It’s really festive. The staff are all wearing red,” said Thai Kee director Wendy Lin. “Families come after yum cha to buy mooncakes as gifts.
“We sell four main types – traditional Cantonese mooncakes made from pastry filled with white or red lotus seed paste and up to four salted duck plums. Lava mooncakes are newer, with liquid cream filling, and snow skins are made with mochi skin and have ice cream inside. There is also puff , made with a crispy pastry and filled with traditional or modern fillings. “
Sydney’s lockdown will continue during this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, and family reunions over Zoom are a poor replacement for the real thing. The tradition consists through mooncakes.
“Mooncakes are round, meant for sharing,” says Lin. “This year we can not do it, we can not visit, so we send them to our loved ones instead.”
Khoo has been creative in his plans to celebrate pretty much with his family in Sydney. “I have my lights and starlight ready to go,” he says. “We have to improvise.
“Many people miss their family. International borders are closed. We should use this time to be grateful that we are alive and know that we will be together again soon.”
Mooncakes to seek out for the Mid-Autumn Festival
Many mooncakes, including Golden Century’s exclusive treats, are sold out for this year’s festival, but takeaway and delivery are still available for the sweets below at the time of release, if you’re quick, not to mention countless brands at Thai Kee IGA.
Sweet Lu’s mooncake offerings span the traditional and the innovative. There are white lotus pasta mooncakes and milk bubble tea or taro sliced mooncakes. But the Haymarket store is best known for its lava cream version, a dense cake with a liquid center. Shop 2A, 63-69 Dixon Street, Haymarket.
Dulcet cakes and sweets
Mooncakes are rich and filling, so Dulcet makes mini mooncakes at every five grams. Exquisitely designed boxes with six come with three varieties: golden custard with salted duck egg, sweet red bean combined with coconut and pie mango and spicy beef with parmesan pastry.
“In a box, we try to combine two sweet varieties and two salts,” says Dulcet owner Vivienne Li. “The chili beef goes really well with beer.” Li says she has been much busier with this lockdown than last year. “We started selling to business customers in April and then to the public in August.” Order via dulcetcakessweets.com.au for home delivery.
The Martin Place hotel’s mooncakes are inspired by its Singaporean roots. The gift boxes have four varieties: mixed nuts with satay, lotus seed paste, oolong tea with dried cranberries and assam lotus with mango for a sweet and sour option. Call Fullerton on 02 8223 1111 to book pickup.