The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is when people across Asia and beyond celebrate the full moon at harvest time. The festival goes back 3,000 years when the Chinese Emperors worshipped the Moon Goddess for a bountiful harvest.
Today, the customs of the Mid-Autumn Festival are carried out according to tradition - the moon is said to be at its brightest and roundest at this time, so it’s an ideal opportunity for a family reunion, thanksgiving and praying. It is said that the Moon Goddess looks favourably on couples, and matters of fertility, romance and love are thought to enjoy good fortune.
Mooncake and more - a whole host of Mid-Autumn Festival food
Of course, festival food plays a central role bringing good luck in the festivities, and there are many traditional dishes that people eat at festival dinners and family gatherings during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Here’s a look at some of the most popular delicacies.
The most iconic delicacy enjoyed during the Mid-Autumn Festival is of course the Mooncake. Here’s a take on this delicious favourite:
- Combine vegetable oil, golden syrup and alkaline water, sift in the all-purpose flour while slowly stirring, and gently knead the dough. Cover completely for 40 minutes.
- Make salted egg yolks by taking 6 yolks and steaming them for 10 minutes on low, then salt them. Once they’ve cooled, mix with wine and dry, then cut into halves.
- Roll out the lotus paste into a tube, cut into 35 gram pieces and roll those pieces into balls. Set aside and take 1 uncooked egg yolks and whisk together with the egg white, then sift the mixture to make an egg wash.
- Separate the dough into 12 equal portions, then cover each with plastic wrap and roll out into discs. Then take the balls of lotus paste and make holes/indentations for the cooked egg yolks and insert them. Wrap the lotus balls with the dough and place the greased mooncake mould around them to shape them, pressing firmly. Place the cakes on a lined baking tray and bake at 180 C/350 F for 10-12 minutes, brushing the cakes with the egg wash 5 minutes before removing from the oven. Once the cakes are golden brown, they’re done.
- Cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight container for 1-2 days until the pastry softens. Then enjoy.
A thick pastry casing, marked with Chinese characters of longevity, have different fillings according to where they are made in China. Each region has its own variations of pastry and fillings, such as red bean paste, fruit, egg yolk, nuts, or lotus seed paste, taro and pineapple. Dianxi Xiaoge has a Youtube channel with over six million followers, and her Yunnan Ham Mooncake is simply mouthwatering.
- Steam washed hairy crabs on high heat in a steamer for 15-20 minutes (depending on the size of the crab) with a perilla leaf in the water.
- On a low heat, stir sugar into Zhejiang black vinegar until the sugar dissolves. Then add minced ginger for a couple of minutes.
- Break the crabs open and remove the flesh and serve with the sweet dipping sauce. Or, serve the crabs whole and let guests open the crabs themselves.
Steamed crabs are often prepared with ginger and vinegar and served with soy sauce at family gatherings. Watch how Gordon Ramsay gets to grips with hairy crab in the video above.
Buffalo nuts or water caltrops are eaten at the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival because they resemble small bats which are thought to be lucky in China. They are usually simply boiled and eaten as a snack.
- Wash the nuts and boil them for 30 minutes with salt and star anise.
- Cool the nuts, then break them open with a nutcracker or teeth.
- Eat the seeds inside.
The taro is a purple sweet potato, usually boiled or steamed. Eating taro during the Mid-Autumn Festival has been done for thousands of years, and they are thought to bring good luck and ward off misfortune. These taro fries make for an excellent snack:
- Remove the rough, hairy taro skin with a knife or peeler, then slice into thin strip or cubes.
- Fry the pieces in a pan over medium high heat with vegetable oil or duck fat, one layer of taro pieces at a time.
- Flip the taro once a side is browned. After both sides are finished, place the pieces on a paper towel to absorb the excess oil/fat, then serve with salt.
Eating river snails is a tradition that comes from Guangzhou where they are plentiful due to the warmer climate. They are found in the rivers and paddy fields of the southern province, and cooked with strong herbs to counter the pungent odour. In Chinese medicine eating river snails is supposed to benefit your eyesight. This river snails recipe is a spicy treat:
- Place live river snails in water for two days with oil to clean out the snails. Change the water three times a day, and clip the snails’ tails.
- Boil the snails in a pot, then rinse with cold water.
- Heat minced ginger, minced garlic, bay leaf, red chilli, anise seed and cinnamon in oil, then add the snails. Add chilli powder, salt and soup stock, and cook for 5 minutes.
- Remove the snails from the stock and stir-fry with chicken powder and oyster sauce. Serve.
Eating pumpkin is a tradition associated with the people of China who couldn’t afford the Mooncake delicacy and instead ate pumpkin patties as an alternative. Eating pumpkin is thought to encourage good health. This pumpkin omelette is a wonderful breakfast dish:
- Mix eggs, salt, pepper, sliced pumpkin and chives in a bowl. Beat well to incorporate.
- Heat oil in a pan over medium-low, and add the mixture.
- Cook with the lid on for 5 minutes, then flip the omelette on the other size for an additional 4-5 minutes, lid off.
- Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve with soy sauce.
Eating duck is popular at all times of year in China, but the fowl is thought to be at its tastiest at this time of year. Each region has its own way of preparing it: in Fujian it is cooked with Taro, in Jiangsu it is baked and salted with osmanthus, while in Sichuan smoked-baked duck is brown and salty, and Nanjing-style duck has crispy skin and tender meat. Nanjing-style duck is a simple yet delectable dish, ideal for the holidays.
- Wash the duck in cold water. Then, in a pan, roast salt and peppercorns over medium heat for 5-8 minutes and set aside.
- Dry the duck and then coat with the salt and peppercorns. Put several thinly sliced spring onions into the cavity of the duck. After the duck has marinated for 3-5 hours, wash off the excess salt and peppercorns.
- Put the duck in a pot with water covering the duck and add Shaoxing wine, salt, sliced ginger, spring onion, star anise, bay leaves, cinnamon and cardamom and bring to boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. Use a plate to press down on the duck as it cooks.
- Turn off the heat and let the duck soak another 40 minutes. Remove the duck from the water and slice up. Serve cooled.
Eating watermelon is popular during the Mid-Autumn Festival because its round shape recalls the moon and symbolises family reunion. The seeds are also thought to promote fertility. Usher in the holidays with this hearty watermelon cranberry sauce.
- Simmer cranberries, lemon juice and zest, vanilla and sugar on medium-low for 20 minutes.
- Simmer for a few more minutes on low after adding maple syrup and cinnamon.
- Remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes, then add the diced watermelon. Serve warm or chilled.
The lotus root comes into season just at the right time for the Mid-Autumn Festival. A typical preparation of lotus root is to steam them and serve them with sticky rice, stir-fried vegetables and honey. Lotus root stir-fry gives a tasty introduction to this autumnal vegetable.
- Blanch peeled, trimmed and sliced lotus roots, chopped, rehydrated wood mushrooms and chopped red bell pepper in a pot of boiling water for 45 seconds, then set aside.
- Make a sauce of oyster sauce, chicken stock, sugar, salt and white pepper in a mixing bowl.
- Heat vegetable oil in a wok on medium heat, fry the ginger for 30 seconds, then add the garlic and scallions for 20 seconds more before adding the blanched vegetables.
- After stir-frying for a minute, add the Shaoxing wine around the edges, followed by the prepared sauce. Once the sauce simmers, add the cornstarch and water to thicken. After 30 more seconds, remove from heat and serve.
The osmanthus flower is in bloom during the Mid-Autumn Festival, and drinking wine infused with the flower is a tradition that goes back thousands of years in China. The osmanthus flower is also used as an ingredient and a garnish in many typical dishes. The wine can be made at home with enough advance preparation:
- Separate the flowering heads of the osmanthus flower from the pedicel and stalk. Sprinkle some white sugar into the flower heads and leave overnight.
- Add additional sugar and leave for 5 more hours.
- Seal the flower heads, rock sugar and liquor in a glass container and place in a dry, cool area for 1 year. Serve after this duration.
It might feel a little intimidating to attempt these Chinese delicacies around the holidays without a more passing familiarity with some more rudimentary dishes in Chinese cuisine. A good place to start to gain initial experience is with a dish like fried rice with egg and spring onion, which is light enough to be enjoyed in summer but also hearty enough for the winter months. Another scrumptious foray into Chinese cuisine via the classic stir-fry is this Chinese broccoli with orange dish, which proves you don’t need many complex steps to create a delightful, balanced vegetable medley. If you’ve mastered these and want something a bit more challenging for dessert, try out this gluten-free Chinese cake, which doesn’t skimp on steps or ingredients in pursuit of creating a culinary masterpiece.