People may be all about pumpkin spice lattes for fall, but for me, it’s not complete without mooncakes.
Chinese people around the world eat them in celebration of the Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on Oct. 1 this year. The festival is all about “family reunions and expressing love to the faraway family members, friends and lovers,” said Pu Wang, associate professor of Chinese literature, language and culture at Brandeis University. “The roundness, yuan, of the full moon then symbolizes a complete gathering, tuanyuan, of a loving family.”
Usually shaped like the full moon, the confections come in all sorts of flavors, with flowers, fruit, lotus and salted ham. Newer styles are even molded like animals and stamped with the Avengers’ symbol.
Ever since I moved away from Fremont, Calif., my parents would mail mooncakes every fall to wherever I lived. During my freshman year at the University of California at Berkeley, fellow Chinese students shared their mooncakes in one big dorm party. It was a beautiful way to commiserate over homesickness — and perfectly in line with the philosophy of the Moon Festival.
It “is a time of joy, a time to reunite with loved ones and appreciate the significance of family and friends,” said Janice Wong, corporate manager of Kee Wah Bakery in Los Angeles and granddaughter of its founder, who started the Hong Kong bakery in 1938.
During the pandemic, that kind of connection is even more important.
And now that it’s tougher to get together, to buy and share these delicacies, some bakeries have enhanced their sites to better sell mooncakes online. With more than 60 shops in California, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, Kee Wah established its first online store in 1997, and due to the pandemic, added a second Los Angeles website to allow local customers to order for pickup and delivery. It also has a store on Amazon with free shipping.
Another bakery, Sheng Kee, which has 11 stores in California and was founded in Taiwan in 1948, has been online for six years. It added an option to track shipments with an app.
“A lot of people are afraid to go out,” said Janet Li, a 53-year-old from Palo Alto who organizes mooncake orders for groups over WeChat and helps distribute them from a San Francisco Chinese restaurant, HL Peninsula. “We used to go to the restaurant and eat together, and now we order the mooncakes together. Ordering together is more convenient now.”
If you want to join the celebration, you’d better buy your mooncakes soon to get them in time, because while these bakeries do offer options for shipping, it may cost more than the confections themselves.
“They aren’t honestly the cheapest thing to ship just because they’re pretty dense and heavy,” said Arthur Kao, marketing director for Sheng Kee and grandson of the founders.
Specializing in mooncakes, Sheng Kee sells around 1.5 million a year. During the pandemic, Kao found that while supermarket sales have decreased around 20 percent, online sales have increased by 10 to 15 percent. The bakery’s most popular is the Green Bean Puff Pastry, but my favorite of theirs has a date filling.
Many of the more traditional mooncakes include an egg yolk in the middle, which Wang of Brandeis University says is linked to good luck.
The older generation likes the classic kinds with egg yolk, said Christina Liu, from HL Peninsula, which started selling them online this year. And the younger generation likes a more contemporary taste, such as lava, similar to a lava chocolate cake, but with egg custard.
The egg yolk lends a saltiness to the sweet filling. Personally, I’m not a fan and will carve the egg out, but like pickles in sandwiches, egg yolks affect the taste of the entire mooncake. If you like them, Kee Wah has mooncakes that include five of them. In case you want to create your own mooncake, realize that it’s not exactly easy. Besides needing a specific mooncake mold, the recipe I found required more than three kinds of flour.
Mooncakes are usually gifts, so while demand has been similar to last year because folks are working at home, they are no longer buying in bulk to give away to clients, said Dave Lazaro, marketing manager for 85 Degrees. They are instead purchasing single mooncakes for themselves. The bakery chain, which has more than 1,000 shops worldwide, is also offering online ordering for the first time, with free shipping for mooncakes. My favorites are its Taiwanese-style ones with a flaky crust, stuffed with taro and mochi.
Kao says that single servings have been more popular at Sheng Kee as well. Traditionally, mooncakes are quite large. Growing up, he remembers slicing them down to share with the entire family. But as family sizes and gatherings have become smaller, especially during the pandemic, Sheng Kee bakery has made its mooncakes smaller.
As gifts, mooncake boxes are often ornate, many times decorated with images of a rabbit or a goddess, both based on folklore. The goddess is Chang’e, who, according to myth, gained immortality, but as a trade-off, she had to live on the moon forever, with only a rabbit as her companion, Wang said.
“Together, they have long been the symbol of the moon in Chinese culture, so much so they come up on mooncake box decorations routinely,” he said. “China’s lunar exploration space mission is named after Chang’e, and its robotic lunar rover is named after Jade Rabbit.”
So this year, instead of having my parents go to the bakery and post office during the pandemic, I ordered them mooncakes online. And even though we’re on different coasts, we can celebrate the festival together, enjoying the cakes under the full moon.
Where to find mooncakes online (with shipping to the continental U.S.):
Cantonese-style with four types (walnut-date mochi, almond-lotus seed, pineapple-yolk and red bean-yolk) or Taiwanese-style with three types (taro mochi, dong-po or dried pork and golden yolk red bean pastry). $58 to $60 for the minimum of two sets of eight or nine mooncakes to ship. Shipping: free for seven to 10 business days, $20 for three days.
Fourteen types, from green bean to mango, with three sizes. $14 to $64 per set of four to 14 mooncakes. Shipping starts at $15 for ground to more than $70 (depending on weight) for second-day air.
Traditional Cantonese-style mooncakes, most available with or without yolks: lotus seed, red bean, mixed nuts (with or without ham), date, pineapple and yolk custard. $4.50-$175 per set of one to nine mooncakes. Shipping: ranges from free on Amazon to more than $95 (depending on weight) for next business day.
Double-yolked pure white lotus paste and lava egg custard. $36 to $42 per set of four to eight mooncakes. Shipping: $15 for FedEx ground.