This article is part of our Mid-Autumn Festival Family Guide. Sign up for our newsletter to receive our best activity, recipe and craft ideas before every Chinese holiday.
Mooncakes are unquestionably the Mid-Autumn Festival’s iconic food. Though jokingly compared to the Western holiday fruitcake for the way they can be gifted and re-gifted among friends, mooncakes are ultimately a beloved part of the Mid-Autumn Festival celebration among the Chinese. Here’s what you need to know to buy with confidence.
1. Know what you’re buying
Traditional mooncakes are round or square palm-sized pastries filled with sweet lotus seed paste and salted egg yolks. They’re eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival to symbolize family unity, longevity and good health. The ideal mooncake achieves a blissful harmony between the moist outer dough casing, the smooth, sweet inner filling and the salty preserved egg yolks.
2. Stay local
You can buy mooncakes at any Chinese bakery in the weeks before the Mid-Autumn Festival. While some swear by mooncakes from high-quality Hong Kong institutions like the Peninsula Hotel, Maxim’s and Wing Wah, expertly navigating all the imports is a minefield. You’ll avoid problems with mislabeling, freshness, preservatives and worse by buying from a bakery in your local Chinatown here in the United States.
3. Price matters…to a point
Expect to pay between $10 and $30 for four mooncakes in a decorative tin. Price generally increases with the quality of ingredients and the number of salted egg yolks included in each mooncake (0, 1, 2 or 3). However, price is only one indicator, especially with imports. A definite advantage of buying local, in this case, is the ability to taste test a single mooncake before committing to a larger purchase.
4. Choose between traditional and modern
A box of four mooncakes with lotus seed paste filling and two salted egg yolks is a classic choice. However, it’s very common, especially in different regions of China, to find mooncakes filled with red bean paste, mixed nuts, dates or pineapple. Modern variations on the classic mooncake are even filled with everything from ice cream to cookie dough to foie gras. If you’re trying to impress the inlaws, stick with the classic. If you’re visiting with friends or coworkers, you can probably choose something more adventurous.
5. Don’t forget to gift
Consider buying mooncakes as gifts for relatives or business partners to show respect and build relationships. In contrast to the red envelopes given at Chinese New Year, mooncakes don’t need to be given in person and can be delivered or sent in the mail. When dealing with business partners, keep the value of the gift below $50 to avoid any interpretation of a bribe.
Whatever your final selection, plan to eat mooncakes with your family on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival. It’s traditional to stack a pyramid of 13 mooncakes to bring your family luck for the next lunar year, but that may be overkill, especially if you are entertaining a smaller group. Serve your mooncakes by cutting them into quarters or into pieces that equal the number of people in the family and serve with strong black or green tea to help cut the oily sweetness.
Can you share any expert tips from your experience buying mooncakes? Want to ask a question before you try buying them yourself? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!
HT: Photo by Singapore Reference.