Mid-Autumn Festival (see my 2007 post on MAF, picked up and mentioned in Epicurious) once again, which reminds us that there's only 3 months to go this year! I was driving some relatives from Shanghai around town last week and the ladies, who are in their late 70s, were wondering why a journey somewhere always seems to take longer than a journey back. It struck me then, that that's just like life. When you are young, you never fear the passing of time. I wanted to grow up quickly at 16, to get out of my parents' house and be free. I was on the journey to. The day you feel that time is passing by quickly is the day you have gone past young. Only people on the journey back feel that time passes quickly. Are you on the journey to or journey back?
The moon on MAF, the 15th day of the eight lunar month, is at its brightest. Families get together, usually two generations of them, eat a big dinner and end it with tea and sweet moon cakes, sitting out in the garden 'appreciating' the full moon.Most people know the real story of how a Han Chinese (all Chinese are of the Han stock) leader hid messages inside moon cakes telling the people to rise up against the 'barbaric' Mongolian rulers in the 14th century. The uprising was successful and China returned to Chinese rule. But many of us don't know the full story of the lady on the moon, the wood cutter and the rabbit, which is more significant to MAF.
Thanks to good old Wiki, I recall the story too: According to Chinese folklore, Chang Er was an immortal together with her husband Houyi. They were banished from heaven and sent down to earth after being framed by other immortals jealous of the Emperor of Heaven's favor towards Houyi. The earth-bound immortals had to live as mortals and Houyu became a hunter and a very good archer. At that time, the earth had 10 suns and one day all 10 of the suns appeared at the same time, causing Earth to burn. Houyi was summoned by the king to shoot 9 of the suns, which he did, and as a reward, he was given a pill, the elixir of life. He hid the pill but Chang Er, who didn't know what it was, ate it and flew to the moon instead where she still lives (Armstrong and the others didn't meet her though). A rabbit is still seen pounding herbs (apparently they grow on the moon?) trying to make the pill for Chang Er to fly back to her husband. There are many versions of the Chang Er story. The version I heard when young was that Houyi became the king after shooting the 9 suns and he became a tyrant. Chang Er took the elixir to prevent Houyi from living forever. Houyi lives on the sun, representing 'Yang', (male force; hot energy) and Chang Er, 'Yin' (female force; cool energy). Once a year, they get to meet on earth, on MAF, the most romantic night of the year. Now you know, the next time someone asks you the story behind the MAF.
In Malaysia, we erroneously call the Mid-Autumn Festival 'Mooncake Festival'. I was first aware of this mistake a long time ago when a Hong Kong friend corrected me, unkindly so too, somewhere along the line of "You Malaysian boys and girls speak crappy Malay-Chinese!" It's true, when a baby's one month old, we say "Full moon" which makes cow sense because the moon's not necessarily full then and what's the moon got to do with it. The right term is "Full month", and the confusion is because the Chinese word for month and moon are the same and if you are ignorant, you show it so by saying "Full Moon".
When I was growing up, my mom celebrated MAF with a moonlight party for the kids in our neighborhood. We'd have agar agar jelly, moon cakes, biscuits and pomeloes, to represent the round moon. We also made our own lanterns, using shaved bamboo sticks and colorful transparent cellophane paper. The lanterns were made according to the Chinese zodiac animals we were born under and I always remember the one time my lantern (won't tell you what animal) burnt and I grabbed Ah Fook's (real name) home-made lantern in the shape of a rabbit (we didn't all make lanterns according to our zodiac year because some animals were harder to make) and he couldn't do anything about that because he came to my party. Mom didn't know of course. I was that mean. Lanterns were already half-extinct when I had my kids but I made sure to get them the commercial ones since I lost the skill of making them from scratch. My daughter carried commercial lanterns with candles and by the time Wey could carry his lantern, they came with battery-lighted bulbs. Now I don't even see any lanterns anywhere.
Custard 'yolk', coconut filling and coffee shell. I know what you think. I asked the lady who sold the cake moulds too: have you ever seen a square moon?
I like jellies of all kinds so I made agar moon cakes yesterday. I used Debbie Teoh's recipe in Festive Cookbook 100 Festive Snacks. The 'yolks' did not set and I was upset ("Hmmph! I must tell Debbie!" Debbie first wrote to me before I left for Europe in May and I found out that she's a big name in Malaysia, appearing on TV shows and has written several cookbooks too). Turned out that I had mistakenly used gelatine powder instead of agar powder. But you know what, I like the runny 'yolks' because my friends thought they were real yolks. I made a few changes, such as not using pandan leaves because I felt the custard powder and the coffee had their own flavor and I also used coconut milk in place of dairy milk and cream because I had leftover coconut milk. I cut back a lot on the sugar too. The recipe made lovely moon cakes of the right texture when chilled overnight. Not traditional, but they are pretty and fun to eat and definitely lots healthier than traditional moon cakes which are full of lard/oil, color and preservatives.
Happy Zhongqiu Jie! Gaze at the moon tonight!