For many, pumpkin spice is the flavor of fall. While it’s certainly a classic, cultures around the world have their own staple fall treats packed with delicious flavors you’re sure to love.
In Chinese culture, eating mooncakes is a seasonal tradition and has been for centuries. Red bean mooncakes, in particular, are an all-time classic with their light, flaky crust housing a sweet-and-savory filling.
They might be unfamiliar to you, but red bean mooncakes are a fall treat you definitely don’t want to miss out on.
What Are Mooncakes?
The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month each year, which usually ends up being in late September or early October. It’s a widely celebrated holiday where families host joyous reunions, friends gather ‘round, and everyone feasts.
During this celebration, mooncakes are a must-have. They’re tiny palm-sized cakes with a thin, crisp crust and a sweet and/or savory filling. It’s also common to add secondary ingredients to the filling, but more on that later.
For now, let’s dive into the history behind mooncakes, which is as robust as the flavors themselves!
Mooncakes Are a Centuries-Old Favorite
The first mention of “mooncakes” dates back thousands of years to the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279). Although the tradition of using cakes as offerings had existed long before this time, they had different names.
Later, toward the end of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), mooncakes became a bit of an aristocratic delicacy. The imperial court gifted them to scholars who visited during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Some say this is where mooncakes got their first association with the holiday.
But it wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368–1644) that making mooncakes became a widespread practice among the masses—and for an interesting historical reason.
Although the details of the tale vary a little, the gist of it is that mooncakes were a key player in overthrowing the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty, as they conveyed important secret messages that could easily be erased once received.
It’s believed that mooncakes became so popular specifically during this dynasty because they represented a celebration of the revolution.
The Meaning Behind Mooncakes
In addition to their long history, mooncakes have their own folklore as well. Even today, they’re famously associated with the Chinese Goddess of the Moon, Chang’e, who represents the Mid-Autumn Festival.
The legend of Chang’e has some variation as well. Generally, the story goes like this: Chang’e’s husband, Hou Yi, was a legendary archer and the hero who took down 9 out of 10 suns in order to save the world from burning up.
He was rewarded for his heroism with an elixir of immortality, but Chang’e consumed it instead. (A common version of the legend is that she was forced to consume the elixir so a thief couldn’t steal it.)
Upon drinking the elixir, Chang’e became immortal and ascended to the Lunar Palace, becoming forever separated from her husband. Hou Yi was devastated and placed his wife’s favorite cakes under the moon in her memory.
You might see mooncakes decorated with rabbit motifs. That’s because it’s said that in the Lunar Palace, one of Chang’e’s only companions was the Jade Rabbit, a mythical being symbolic of the moon.
Modern Day Meaning
Today, mooncakes represent family reunions and happiness, stemming from a long history of Chinese families gathering to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Gifting mooncakes has also become a big tradition in business, as it symbolizes partnership. In fact, many companies set aside a budget each year dedicated solely to gifting mooncakes.
How Are Mooncakes Made?
Mooncake recipes vary slightly across Asian cultures. One of the most commonly sold versions is called Cantonese style.
In this style, the top crust typically features decoration in the form of favorable Chinese characters representing concepts like “longevity” or “harmony,” but when making them at home, you can decorate them with any symbol you’d like!
Mooncakes are traditionally filled with a paste made from lotus beans, sweet red beans, or jujube (also known as red dates).
It’s common for added ingredients like salted egg yolks (which represent the full moon), seeds, nuts, or fruit to be baked into the cake with the filling.
Did You Know?
It’s considered unusual, even a bit rude, to eat a whole mooncake yourself. Instead, they’re cut into four slices and shared with other people.
What Do Red Bean Mooncakes Taste Like?
If you’ve never had a sweet bean treat before, you might be wondering what red bean mooncakes taste like. Don’t worry, they don’t taste like a can of beans!
Red bean mooncakes are savory, salty, and mildly sweet. It’s a similar flavor profile to sweet potatoes—which fits in perfectly with fall flavors you may already know and love.
How to Store Red Bean Mooncakes
Red bean mooncakes are good for up to 2 weeks when stored in a sealed container and kept in a cool, dry place.
Making Red Bean Mooncakes at Home
Wondering how to get your hands on one of these tasty little treats? You can make them right at home! Our BāKIT Box Red Bean Mooncakes recipe is simple and intuitive, with pre-measured ingredients and easy-to-follow instructions.
Mooncakes can be enjoyed at any time, and certainly without any background knowledge. But knowing a bit about these traditional treats makes eating them all the sweeter.
Whip some up and gift them to someone you appreciate, or share them over a pot of tea, along with some things you’re grateful for.
If you love our red bean mooncakes, BāKIT Box has baking subscription boxes with tons of delicious, diverse recipes you’ll love trying (and sharing). Get your passport to a new cultural baking destination each month—sign up now!