Thursday, October 1, 2009

Moon Cakes For Military Might in China

China's Communist regime celebrated its 60th birthday on October 1 with a massive parade of rolling tanks, missile launchers, lines of soldiers and moon cakes.

That’s right, moon cakes, or round pastries filled with salty or sweet fillings -- red bean paste, or hard-boiled eggs or a mix of fruit and nuts.

Eating the dense seasonal treat, often with Chinese tea to cut the fat, is also timed this year with Harvest Moon Night, an autumn, harvest type celebration that falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month when the moon is highest and brightest in the sky.

The occasion allows farmers to give thanks for their harvest and to pray to the moon for protection and prosperity.

Recall the man on the moon and you get a hint of the lunar symbolism.

Moon cakes, being high in cholesterol, also serve to bring families together in that you can hardly eat one on your own. Instead, the cakes are cut into four or eight pieces, and become part of a fall tuan yuan, or family reunion.

So pastry shops, supermarkets and restaurants in China and the Chinese diaspora worldwide will break out the moon cakes for a rare confluence in 2009 of the October 1 National Day holiday and the Mid-Autumn Harvest Festival, which takes place on October 3.

Thwack-thwack-thwack! is to be heard in Chinese bakeries, as bakers prepare a sweet dough for placement in custom molds, next to be filled with choice filings.

In China’s Kuming province, Yunnan TV reported that nearly 97% of local mooncakes are up to standard after inspection by food safety inspectors, compared to 90% last year.

The molds, with indentations, identity in Chinese characters what type of fillings are in the pastry delicacies. After being gingerly lifted from the molds, the moon cakes are packed in square boxes for sale and consumption.

Favorite fillings include coconut, lotus seed paste and black bean paste.

Biting in a moon cake evokes thoughts of home, or autumn harvest if you’re in the Chinese countryside, and military might if your Proustian moment includes exhaust fumes from all those tanks rolling along Beijing’s Avenue of Eternal Peace, in front of president Hu Jintao, to celebrate China’s National Day.

Which is as it should be because moon cakes eaten during the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival has its origins, according to legend, in a 14th century battle to overthrow China’s Mongolian rulers.

At the tail end of the Yuan Dynasty A.D. (1280-1368), Hans rebels had to figure out how to mount an insurrection to overthrow the foreign rulers without detection. They settled on the moon cake, knowing the Harvest Moon festival was nearing and that Mongolians didn’t eat the pastry delicacy.

So they ordered a full batch of moon cakes and inserted into each a message warning of an attack on the night of the Moon Festival. The uprising on August 15, with the moon high and bright in the sky, proved successful and it became a tradition to eat moon cakes during the mid-Autumn festival to recall the victory over the Mongolians.

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