Moon cakes are probably the most important type of traditional Chinese pastry. However, the period in the year that they are available is short, only a few weeks.
Moon cakes are the typical treat you eat around the Mid Autumn Festival, the first full moon of the Autumn according the lunar calendar.
The bulk of a moon cake consists of the filling, wrapped in a crust of traditional Chinese pastry dough (relying on fat for the texture, rather than yeast or other rising agent). Moon cakes are roughly divided into Northern types and Southern types. The Northern moon cakes are harder and dryer, while the Southern types are softer and moist.
Fillings can be based on lotus paste, bean paste, fruit, nuts, etc. Southern moon cakes can also contain small pieces of ham or other meats and often have a duck egg in the centre. Moon cakes are rich, eating one in the morning can easily count as breakfast as well as lunch. Chinese often cut a moon cake in small pieces.
The moon cake production season starts early, sometimes two months prior to the actual festival. Many traditional bakeries, and even bakeries of Western pastries, usually stop manufacturing other products, directing all man power and resources to the production of moon cakes. About 280,000 mt of moon cakes were produced in China in 2013.
A market survey conducted in 2019 has shown that the main consumer group for moon cakes is the 30 – 39 years age bracket; good for 54% of the total consumption. The second group is the 20 – 29 years bracket; good for 22%. That year a total of 1.38 billion mooncakes were sold, generating a turnover of RMB 19.67 billion.
It is big business for suppliers of food ingredients as well. Traders in food ingredients also stock up large quantities of moon cake ingredients and place extensive advertisements in the local media.
Here is a video of producer of moon cake production machines. It is a commercial video, but still gives an interesting insight in the industrial production of moon cakes.
Signature moon cakes
Major hotels and restaurants have also started noticing the potential of mooncakes as a novel way of reaching out to the market. They have asked their chefs to come up with innovative flavours using unconvential ingredients. Some even experiment with Western ingredients. Here is my pick from the Beijing 2014 season.
- The mooncakes of the Imperial Palace Restaurant are mainly Chaozhou-style (a cuisine in Guangdong) pastry mooncakes, which are handmade by chefs with more than 10 years’ experience, and are delicious and fresh, with low levels of fat and sugar. The restaurant claims that their products have no additives. In addition to the traditional mooncakes, the restaurant has introduced fillings made from fruit and vegetables, such as cranberry and white gourd.
- The Westin Beijing Financial Street has packages that mix Western and Chinese flavors such as goose liver, truffle pumpkins and Chinese chestnut.
- The Shangri-La Hotel in Beijing has 42 fillings at different prices, including some special flavours such as rose with red bean paste. Diabetics can choose low-sugar pumpkin mooncakes, and those who want to keep fit can buy ones containing cereal germs.
Moon cakes can not escape the problems of modern industrial production. Consumers want the products look, feel and taste exactly as the traditional hand made cakes, leaving the manufacturers with the problem to translate that wish into a recipe.
Modern moon cake production has a number of problems related to ingredients:
With the increase in the period between production and consumption preservation has become a serious problem. Moon cakes are an ideal environment for the growth of molds, especially the moist Southern style moon cakes. My latest bite of mooncake (Jan. 1, 2015; Jiayuan brand, bean paste filled) contained potassium sorbate and sodium dehydro-acetate.
Until mid 2000, many manufacturers included a small pack of dimethyl fumarate (DMF) with their moon cakes. This preservatives slowly sublimates, preventing the growth of mold. Moreover, DMF did not have to be listed on the packaging as a preservative, because it did not count as an additive. However, the use of DMF for food was prohibited in May 2000. Alternative preservatives are still being tested by the manufacturers. Especially the suppliers of Natamycin are actively promoting their products for the treatment of moon cake surfaces.
A company in Guangdong has developed a special preservative for moon cakes. The longer the shelf life the higher the price is no longer the case with moon cakes. Rules have changed, so have perceptions. The norm now is, the shorter the shelf life the higher the price.
Traditional Chinese pastry dough is high in fat, creating that typical crumbly texture. This calls for antioxidants to preserve the flavour of the pastry. Recently publications on antioxidants in moon cakes seem to converge on their preference for tea polyphenol as the best solution. It is a natural ingredient and apart from its antioxidant property, it also has a preservative activity and protects the colour of the pastry. An interesting ingredient in this respect is tea, which adds colour, flavour and mouthfeel and also functions as an antioxidant. See my special post on tea as food flavour.
Moon cakes are supposed to be sweet. However, Chinese consumers are also getting more aware of the problems caused by excessive intake of sucrose. The past few years have seen experiments with alternative sweeteners. A number of manufacturers are already offering moon cakes sweetened with polyols, in particular maltitol and xylitol. Beijing based Daoxiangcun produces ‘maltitol moon cakes’. According to the information on the package, the pastry contains 15% and the filling even 43% maltitol.
Trends in typology
A survey held in 2019 still showed that traditional flavours were mainstream in the moon cake business.
The term ‘healthy’ is not explained by the authors of the survey, but we can assume that these are mainly sugarfree moon cakes.
Most moon cakes are still produced on an ad hoc basis, and sold in bulk, without brand. However, a number of brands have started to emerge in recent years. The current top three brands are:
Produced by the Huamei Food Co., Ltd. In Dongguan (Guangdong), this is not only a noted brand, but also a ‘green food’, the Chinese designation for ecologically friendly foods, one grade below biological foods.
The producer of this brand, Ronghua Pastry Co., Ltd., is also located in Dongguan, but the mother company is from Hong Kong. This company has been engaged in a fierce legal battle with an entrepreneur from Shandong about the use of the Wingway (the Cantonese pronunciation of Ronghua) for many years. This is yet another proof of the economic importance of moon cakes.
Anqi Food Co., Ltd. is yet another Guangdong-based company, located in Shenzhen. It was the first to introduce ‘iced moon cakes’ in the Mainland. These are white moon cakes, with a skin made from glutinous rice.
The top 5 moon cake brand in online sales in 2019 were:
The only limits of what is possible with moon cakes are the limits of ones imagination. Any more or less round shape from dough with any kind of filling can be called a moon cake. The photo of this section shows a bear-shaped and elephant-shaped moon cake. The bear cake has a coffee flavour, while the elephant cake is scented with orange.
Trend 2015 1: medicinal moon cakes
A trend in 2015 is to enrich moon cakes with traditional Chinese medicinal ingredients, like: ginseng, goji berries, or cordyceps (a fungus infected caterpillar). The resulting pastry can then be attributed medicinal functions and, hopefully, be sold at a premium price. This initiative has received mixed reactions from the market. However, whether it catches on or not, it has at least added new colours to the existing range of moon cakes, as shown by this picture.
Eurasia Consult’s databases include a large number of recipes for generic and innovative moon cakes; and our database of the Chinese food industry includes 121 producers of moon cakes.
Weird, weirder, weirdest
It is not always easy to come with yet another novel type of mooncake. Here are some of the weirder examples launched in 2015.
- Chocolate mooncake with spicy beef filling
Ten years ago, a Chinese girl was reported to say to a boy, “It’s impossible for us to be together, like chocolate will never be with beef.” Today, it seems that everything is possible.
- Sour and spicy mooncake
- Fermented bean curd mooncake
This is a variant of a kind of pastry made with fermented bean curd popular in Chaoshan, Guangdong province, similar to furu, also reported in an earlier post. The pastry is usually used as a sacrificial offering by local people on the first day and the middle day of each month.
- Mooncake with fillings of cream, truffle and goose liver
Expensive is still fancy in China. The “Louis Vuttion” of mooncakes is made with expensive ingredients of truffle and goose liver. This luxurious mooncake definitely deserves a bite.
6. Mooncake with leek egg filling
- “Shiren” mooncake
“Shiren” mooncakes have 10 kinds of nuts, doubling the traditional “Wuren” mooncake with 5 kinds of nuts. It’s four to six times larger than traditional mooncakes, and implies best wishes of “perfect in every respect”.
- Mooncake stuffed with braised pork and preserved vegetable in soya sauce
Braised pork with preserved vegetable in soya sauce, or “meicai kourou” is a famous Chinese dish. The one made this special filling for mooncake must be a super fan of this dish. Like the scrambled egg moon cake, this variety is in line with another innovative type of dumpling reported in another post of this blog: dumplings with entire dishes as filling.
- Bamboo charcoal mooncake
This mooncake is made by putting bamboo charcoal powder into the mooncake when baking. It’s said to have the function of absorbing toxins inside our bodies. As reported earlier, the distinction between food and medicine is much smaller in China than in the West.
- Instant noodle mooncake
Putting instant noodles into the traditional mooncake will surely give you a special experience. The mooncakes are also marked with Chinese characters, “Diao Si”, which means “underprivileged losers” in a self-mocking way. Perhaps this refers to the recent decline in the instant noodle market in China.
- Mooncakes with bean-taste filling fried with tomatoes
Moon cakes as ingredients. The canteen of Civil Aviation University of China had put forward a dish which fried mooncake pieces stuffed with sweet bean taste and tomatoes before decorating them with caraway. The dish became a hit on the Internet and is called the weirdest mooncakes.
No one wants to miss the boat
icecream moon cakes
Virtually any food-related chain in China is offering its own specialty in the shape of moon cakes. Häagen-Dazs is also joining in with ice cream moon cakes.
Domestic ice cream makers had to follow suit and Chicecream launched a series of ice cream moon cakes in 2021, in cooperation with Shangrila.
Mooncakes with an academic flavour
Universities around Shanghai have begun competing to offer mooncakes with the most distinctive characteristics in 2016. In addition to traditional fillings such as egg yolk, lotus seed paste, “five kernel,” red bean paste and fresh meat, a variety of new flavors have been introduced, including tiramisu, durian, coffee, ham and beef, purple sweet potato and mushroom. These new flavors offer a real treat for teachers and students alike.
Trend in 2018: small and special ingredients
More and more food companies whose products do not include pastry are launching their own specialty mooncakes this year. A prominent example is nut processor Three Squirrels with a range of 6 different flavours. The most spectacular one has a liquid caramel core as shown in the picture.
Daoxiangcun (Beijing) is a pastry maker, but has launched a series of relatively small colourful mooncakes based on a famous animation character Huangdoujun.
Qingxintang is a Guangdong-based producer of a wide range of traditional Chinese snacks. This year, the company is luring the mooncake crowd with a series of 6 mini-mooncakes that are promoted as vegetarian (many Guangdong style mooncakes contain pork or duck egg) made from selected flowers, cereals, seeds and teas.
Surprises of 2020: cheese-filled mooncake
Zhenzhang Food Co., Ltd. (Xi’an, Shaanxi) has launched a cheese-filled mooncake under its Yupinxuan brand in September 2020. It uses Tatura cream cheese as an ingredient. Although the cheese is imported from Australia, the mooncakes are marketed as ‘French style cheese mooncakes’, obviously because French sounds fancier than Australian.
Also in 2020, newcomer Bee & Cheery has invested in buying the rights to launch a series of Doraemon moon cakes in sweet pumpkin and green bean flavours.
Leading dairy company Yili has launched a limited edition of its Ambrosial drinking yoghurt with moon cake flavour. I wonder it this will ever become a success, but it is an interesting example of how anyone is something in the Chinese food industry wants to cash in on moon cakes.
Chinese consumers also started liking smaller sized moon cakes in 2020. According to Bianlifeng, a Beijing-based, data-powered convenience store chain, the smaller mooncakes in pretty packaging have quickly gained popularity among consumers. Females accounted for 60% of the consumers who bought mooncakes at Bianlifeng, which has prompted the manufacturers of the mooncakes to make the snacks about half their traditional size. Mooncakes lighter than 80 grams accounted for 67% of the chain’s sales in 2020.
Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success.