Vietnamese Mooncakes in Mid-autumn festival

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Are Mid-Autumn Moon Festival “mooncakes” Vietnam’s Christmas “fruit cakes”? Everyone gets one (or many) mooncakes as gifts for the holiday. And many are never unboxed. Instead, special friends pass them along as gifts to other special friends. Now, certainly Vietnamese folk love mooncakes. Literally millions are sold for the Mid-Autumn Festival. But I’ve never actually seen a Vietnamese friend buy one to consume for themselves. I have seen plenty of boxes sit untouched on kitchen counters until I arrive for a visit and am told, You must try a moon cake! Of course, I do.

I have nothing against eating a heavy brick for the holidays. After all, it’s tradition! But it must be eaten in small slices over the course of several days. Always dense and heavy, moon cake ingredients vary from bakery to bakery. I’ve encountered numerous fillings, involving bean pastes, ground seeds and nuts, salted egg yolk, dried fruits, and shredded meats. So just what is this holiday that requires eating this special food?

The mid-autumn festival

The mid-autumn festival, which is believed to originate in China and celebrated by many Asian countries, including Vietnam, falls on the 15th day of the eighth month on the lunar calendar. The festival falls on September 8 this year.

According to Chinese folklore, there are several explanations on the origin of the mid-autumn festival and mooncakes, which boast a unique, sweet flavor and are diverse in shapes, sizes and fillings.

In feudal times, Chinese emperors would traditionally perform praying rituals to the sun in springtime and to the moon in the fall in hopes of auspicious weather, prosperous crops, peace, and wealth.

Vietnamese mooncakes via Wild Tussah

Locals thus considered the 15th day of the eighth lunar month the day to pay tribute to the moon god, and offer moon-like round cakes to the god on the occasion. Following the ritual, they merrily relished the sweets and admired the full moon in the company of their dearest ones. 

Another theory on the origin of the festival and mooncakes revolves around Tang Ming Huang (685-762), one of China’s Tang Dynasty emperors. Once, while taking a stroll in his royal garden, the emperor was taken to an autumn-time fairy world by a monk with magical powers.

Back in his palace, wistful of the fairy scenery, the emperor ordered that locals hold celebrations to mark the special occasion every year. The emperor and his favorite royal concubine also relished mooncakes and wine together during the moonlit night.

Vietnamese mooncakes

According to my Vietnamese friends, the Mid-Autumn Festival recounts the legend of Cuội, whose wife accidentally urinated on a sacred banyan tree, taking Cuội with the sacred banyan tree to the moon. Every year on the Mid-Autumn Festival, children light lanterns and participate in a procession to show Cuội the way back to Earth. So there you have it. Why not eat a heavy brick-like pastry to help celebrate the memory of an accidental urination on a sacred tree? Makes sense!

Vietnamese mooncakes via CC Food Travel

Perhaps I’m a bit facetious. But there is a very good reason that mooncakes are so popular and exchanged widely across Vietnam. It’s what’s UNDER the moon cake: COLD, HARD CASH! It seems managers in Vietnam help ensure their career advancement by simply placing cash in the moon cake gift box and presenting it at Mid-Autumn Festival to their superiors. The larger the cash denominations, the more successful their career! It’s tradition! But there are two other great aspects to the Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam. One is the children’s holiday processions and Lion Dances. They are colorful, sweet, and great fun. And just as exciting is the NEW moon cake tradition. Baskin & Robbins in Saigon now has Cherries Jubilee ice cream- (rather than bean paste-) filled mooncakes with a mango yogurt center (rather than a salted egg)! Major yummy!

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