In 1969, when man landed and walked on the moon, I was devastated ... Chang Er, the Moon Goddess lives there, the moon is her kingdom and she has lived there for centuries—How could have Neil Armstrong invaded her territory without her permission! I could see the ever graceful Moon Goddess in her beautiful white long robe floating around with her pet rabbit but there was no man on the moon!
A long time ago, Chang Er came to earth to help the peasants during the famine, while there she fell in love with a farmer and they got married. But they offended the heavenly protocol, and she was sent back to the moon immediately and lived apart from her husband forever. She fell to her knees and begged her parents; finally, they agreed to allow her to meet her husband for one day in every year on the 15th of August. In the Chinese lunar calendar, this date is when the moon is the brightest and fullest in China.
About one month before the Moon Cake festival the streets are decorated with colourful lanterns, the shops are full of boxes of moon cakes, piling up on top of each other. The lanterns are made from bamboo frames, with colours of bright transparent papers, traditional animal lanterns are hanging from ceiling to the walls, all lit up at night in the shops. The faces of young children are smiling with excitement; some would throw tantrums for bigger and better ones than previous year if they cannot get their favourite lanterns.
When I was young, the hardest thing for me was to choose the right one, cycling everywhere to choose the best lantern among all shops. Finally I found a fine white dragon lantern with moveable eyes, gold sparkles scales on the body; the head nods as I hold him in my hand. I loved him! “Take me home, I am yours”, he was whispering to me. I made the shopkeeper promise not to sell it to anyone and I would bring our maid, Ah Mooi, to pick it up the next day.
Guess what? The next day, my youngest brother came to the shop with us, he saw my dragon lantern and he wanted it. I argue with him, tears were in my eyes as I was too embarrassed to scream in public. Eventually I gave in; I let him have it since he was born in the year of the dragon. After the lantern festival, I wrapped the dragon lantern with tender loving care, hoping it might be mine next year. Whenever I have a dinner party now, there would be many lanterns hanging on the trees, to create the nostalgic childhood memories of Moon Cake festival!
We used to parade our lanterns just after dark, we would walk to a deserted area and gather the younger children and tell them spooky ghost stories, they were screaming and running everywhere, some even burned their lanterns as they tried to run home. Somehow, our Moon Goddess and the bright moonlight would guide us home to safety.
The moon cakes are made from flour and sugar syrup with red bean filling. Some have salted egg yolk in the centre to represent the full moon, and some with lotus paste filling. My favourites are the ones with various seeds such as melon, pumpkin and sesame seeds, sugared melon, and some with smoked ham; it has salty and sweet flavour, which can be grilled on both sides before serving. It is delicious! Those are the traditional moon cakes, but nowadays there are many new varieties having a snow-white skin and durian filling. The moon cakes come in a tin box with Moon Goddess printed on the cover, containing four round or square cakes. Each cake is embossed with Chinese characters which are the symbols of longevity and harmony.
There are moon cakes for children as well; they are plain pastry without filling (yet the same pastry as the moon cake). They are moulded into the shapes of animals such as lions, rabbits and piglets in the basket. The moon cake is labour-intensive and expensive to make, the syrup has to be prepared for a month before kneading into the pastry. The sweet fillings are sweet fragrant and rich. Small pieces are served with Chinese tea.
Why do we eat moon cakes?
During the Yuan Dynasty, China was ruled by Mongols. The people were not happy and the leaders of the rebellion knowing the Moon Cake festival was getting close, ordered the villagers to make some moon cakes, filled with messages and had plans to attack the army. They ate the moon cakes on August 15 (full moon), read the message and attacked the Mongols. The government was overthrown and a new era Ming Dynasty was established.
Today, all over the world, young and old, we celebrate Moon Cake festival with joy and regard it as an auspicious occasion. We travel from everywhere bringing moon cakes from specialty stores, and then come home to reunite with family and friends. Food offerings were placed on an altar with fruits such as apples, pears, watermelon, pomelos and pomegranates.
Special food in season would be pinang yam and water cal trope—a type of water chestnut that has a hard shell, crunchy texture and nutty flavour, which resembles the shapes of black buffalo horns.
The family would gather on the balcony admiring and gazing at the moon, eating moon cakes and drinking cups of Chinese tea. The elders would be telling stories of the past, reminding everyone about the meaning of the Moon Cake festival and passing on the tradition to the next generation.
Most moon cakes in Malaysia and Singapore are imported from China and Hong Kong. There is plenty of competition among local bakeries, but as the connoisseur would say, “the local bakeries have not mastered the skills yet!”