Mid-Autumn Festival Traditions

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival, everyone!

What are you doing for the holiday? And, more importantly, what will you be cooking and/or eating?

I celebrated my first Moon (Mid-Autumn) Festival in my freshman year of college. A dormmate invited the hall to a bench outside the building to light paper lanterns and eat mooncakes. She also made a little shrine for her grandmother: a black-and-white photo of a young, curly-haired woman leaned on the back of the bench. My dormmate held pink sticks of incense and knelt before the photo. She bowed three times and placed the incense in a holder next to her grandmother. “The Moon Festival is a family holiday,” our dormmate explained. “It is meant to be shared.” And so she shared with us the cakes, the lanterns, the full moon, and her grandmother.

Since then I have had a few Mid-Autumn feasts, where I first learned, among other things, how to fry a shrimp cracker. I will be at a Moon Festival potluck on Friday, where I hope to get inspired for future posts. (Hint: some more sweet treats will be mentioned here soon.)

Feel free to post in either English or Chinese. I’ll translate any Chinese comments.



Welcome to Chinese Checkout, a guide to the cooking ingredients, snacks, and desserts in Chinese grocery stores. Occasionally we’ll venture into restaurants, but the main point is to show you what things are, how to use them, and how they came to be.

It’s almost the Mid-Autumn Festival, one of the biggest Chinese holidays. Falling around the autumnal equinox, it’s a celebration of the harvest and a time for visiting family and friends to pray to your ancestors and gaze at the full moon. It’s also time to eat mooncakes.


Wing Wah Brand mooncakes

Wing Wah Brand mooncakes.


Mooncakes are made in all sorts of ways, but the Cantonese-style lotus seed paste cakes populate most grocery store shelves. I bought a box of Wing Wah Brand cakes from Hong Kong to bring to my friends. After all, they’re meant to be given as gifts and shared.


Lotus seed paste mooncake.

Lotus seed paste mooncake.


I sampled a larger mooncake that I’d bought for the house. The crust is paper-thin and hard to taste against the creamy, dense lotus seed paste. The paste is much less sweet than what we Americans are used to. There’s just enough sugar to balance the nutty smoothness of the paste. The “moon” inside is a salted duck egg, flaky and savory. As a kid, I only ate the yolk of hard-boiled eggs, so the “moon” appeals to me. Not everyone likes it, though, and not every mooncake has a “moon” inside.


“Hundred fruits" Shanghai-style mooncakes.

"Hundred fruits" Shanghai-style mooncakes.


I also found Shanghai-style mooncakes at my local store. (Oddly, they are also made in Hong Kong. Guess Hong Kong has the market cornered.) When I asked the woman at checkout about them, she simply said, “Shanghai people like these.” I asked if she liked them. “No,” she smiled.

The Shanghai-style mooncake is flaky, falling apart into a sweet powder in your mouth. Definitely not meant for divvying up. It’s made with peanut oil instead of the more typical lard, but it’s just as delicious and not at all peanuty. I’m not sure the manufacturer was completely truthful about the ingredients, though. The box lists olive kernels, but I could swear those are chopped walnuts in there. As for the orange fruit bits, I’m tempted to say papaya, but they’re so small it’s hard to tell. Still, I like these mystery mooncakes.


“Hundred fruits" Shanghai-style mooncakes.

"Hundred fruits" Shanghai-style mooncakes.


When you buy mooncakes in tins, you may say a beautiful woman painted on the top. She is Chang’e, the goddess of the moon. Chang’e was once earth-bound, living with her husband, the archer Houyi, who descended with her to the realm of men. Hou’yi shot down the nine extra suns to keep the earth from burning up. As a reward he was given an immortality pill. But Chang’e got to it first, and it caused her to levitate. She flew to the moon, where she lives to this day.

You may also see rabbits hopping along your tin. They recall the Moon Rabbit, also called the Jade Rabbit, who lives in the moon with Chang’e, where he pounds herbs to make the elixir of immortality. You can see the Jade Rabbit in this Wednesday’s full moon.