Of Mid Autumn And Moon Cakes In Kolkata

Here's a celebration of the luminous autumn pastry the signature dish of the Mid-Autumn Festival, which commemorates the full moon and the fall harvest.
Moon cakes are an important part of the Autumn festival
Moon cakes are an important part of the Autumn festival

The image of a lovely designer cake on a digital media post caught my attention. It was a mooncake and it was being made by a Chinese chef in Kolkata. But what was a mooncake, I wondered Which made me turn to Robert Hsu, a young member of the Indian Chinese Association who I had met earlier in the year during a walk through India&rsquos oldest China Town sprawling across Tiretta Bazaar neighbourhood in central Kolkata.   

&ldquoIt is part of the Moon Festival, which is the second most popular festival for the Chinese next to the New Year,&rdquo said Robert Hsu, &ldquobut not many people know about this because it is mostly celebrated within the family.&rdquo Robert Hsu&rsquos family is one of the few ethnic Chinese Indian families who still call Kolkata home.

The Moon Festival, observed on the 15th&nbspday of the eighth Lunar month of the Chinese calendar, is rooted in legends and made popular by a political aspiration in the 14th&nbspcentury. This year, the Moon Festival is on October 1.

According to the legend, one mid-autumn night, Chang Er, tired of being stuck on earth as her husband &ndash archer Hong Yi &ndash refused to leave for heaven, stole the &lsquoimmortality pill&rsquo from him and floated to the moon. It was so sudden that she could only snatch up her pet jade rabbit. Ever since, they have been trying to concoct a pill that would get them back to earth. Since then, their shadows are visible on that particular day.

According to Chinese custom, on this day, families get together to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival (Chung Chou Chi), which consists of &lsquomoon viewing&rsquo, and eating moon cakes, fruits, shell boiled groundnuts, and green tea. According to Hsu, pomelo is the preferred fruit.

It is said that in the 14th century, people who had risen as rebels against the Mongol rule, found an innovative way to exchange messages &ndash by hiding them inside moon cakes. When the Mongols were overthrown and the Ming dynasty of the Han people came to power, the tradition of sharing moon cakes with family and friends continued.

Moon cakes are also offered as a mark of respect to senior members of the community as well as an offering to the spirit of the ancestors.

According to Hsu, buying moon cakes is a recent phenomenon because earlier it used to be made by the family members.

Chef Alex Li, also from Kolkata, and who had baked that awesome looking moon cake, reiterated Hsu&rsquos feeling. &ldquoI cherish the memories of my mother making the moon cakes while all the siblings helped out in the kitchen,&rdquo said Li. &ldquoThe Moon Festival is about togetherness and keeping alive the tradition and techniques of making the cakes.&rdquo

According to Li, there are two versions of moon cakes. &ldquoOne, in which the pastry skin is baked. And the Snow Skin, which is not baked,&rdquo he said. There are different kinds of fillings that go into these cakes, such as lotus paste, red beans, yam, roasted five nuts, and salted duck eggs. The lotus paste usually goes with the Snow Skin. &ldquoIn Kolkata, the pastry skin with red beans and five nuts are the best sellers,&rdquo said Li. &ldquoThese happen to be my favourites too,&rdquo he added with a smile. Li makes the moon cakes according to the traditional recipe which has been passed down by his grandmother.

Much to Hsu&rsquos regret, the custom of lantern making has almost died. Even a few years back, the Association would hold lantern parades. Children would make these paper lanterns, often as part of a competition. Apart from the paper lanterns, there would be lanterns in the shape of rabbits, fish, aeroplanes, etc.

With the number of long-settled Chinese families of Kolkata dwindling fast, moon cakes may soon be a thing of the past too. So go ahead and buy a few while they are still being baked. 

This article is from our Story Bank. It was first published in October 2020.

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