The beautiful Moon Goddess waits patiently for this day every year to be reunited with her mortal lover on Earth. Thousands of years ago, a forbidden love affair was formed between the immortal and her mortal lover, a cowherd, on earth. When they were discovered, the Gods banished the Moon Goddess to the Moon and forbade her to contact her lover. The villagers who witnessed this love story were so moved to help them that they baked mooncakes with hidden love messages to help the lovers communicate.
This is the legend behind the Chinese Moon Festival but is often also called the Mid Autumn Festival.
To this day, the Moon Festival is still celebrated by Chinese Communities the world over and if you look closely at the moon on this night, you might see the Moon Goddess too. (There are many other version of the myths about the Moon Festival that have evolved over the last 4000 years and this is the version that I heard growing up.)
The Moon Festival is also popularly known as the Mid Autumn Festival and it falls on the 15th day of the 8th Month of the Lunar Calendar. This is the second most important festival after Chinese New Year and Chinese communities around the world celebrate it by having a big family meal, lighting coloured lanterns, letting off fireworks and eating mooncakes.
Celebrating the Moon Festival in London Chinatown
In London, you will see the lanterns festooned across Gerrard Street and restaurants packed with families celebrating this festival. In Asia, all the children will get paper lanterns shaped to the likeness of today’s superheroes which they will parade around the neighbourhood with their friends. A bit like Trick or Treating at Halloween without the costumes. Meanwhile, the grown ups will sip tea and eat mooncakes while admiring the moon.
Keep an eye out for announcements and the Chinatown Association usually hold a party to celebrate the festival.
Mooncakes and the varieties
Mooncakes are usually made with a thin pastry crust that is shaped around a mould and filled with a sweetened filling. Chinese ones are usually made round and have messages stamped on the crust. A well-made crust is usually really thin and is usually made with lard.
This year, I was sent a moon cake from Singapore from the Szechuan Village restaurant which was filled with lotus seed paste and 2 salted egg yolks. The texture was a bit too soft and it was lacking in one of the main ingredients, melon seeds. Good enough but not great. I was trying to get the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong to send me some of their award winning ones but they insisted they wouldn’t travel well in the post.
Every year, the mooncake manufacturers try to outdo each other with ever more outrageous flavours. They all look and taste really weird like Durian Snow Skin Mooncake (which has a tasteless white outer skin and durian flavoured filling), strawberry, orange, green tea, pandan and chocolate. I still prefer the traditional ones with either lotus seed filling or red bean filling.
Where to buy mooncakes in London
In London you can buy locally made mooncakes at the Far East Bakery on Gerrard Street. They are the only people who make their own. All the supermarkets in Chinatown sell imported ones, mainly from Hong Kong or you can buy them online from our friends at Wai Yee Hong. (Tip: Most the shops in Chinatown sell them at a discount the day after the Moon Festival. )
Besides mooncakes, we have other special foods for the Moon Festival like these strange looking water chestnuts shaped like a horn, called Ling Kok also known as Bull’s Horn in English. This is boiled and then cracked open to eat the starchy filling. It doesn’t taste of much but has some sort of traditional significance which has been lost.
Learn more on the Mid Autumn Festival here.