Changing Ways to Celebrate an Ancient Holiday

Photo: Regent Taipei

The Mid-Autumn Festival – also known as the Moon Festival – has been one of the most important observances on the Chinese calendar since at least the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD).  But the Taiwanese have been finding new ways to celebrate the holiday, which this year falls on the evening of September 13.

The essence of the festival has always been to get outdoors  and “appreciate the moon” (賞月). Usually the moon-gazing is accompanied by munching on the two foods most associated with the holiday – round pastries known as mooncakes, and pomelos, an Asian citrus fruit that is one of the parent species that led to the hybrid grapefruit.

Mooncakes are a traditional treat dating back to the Tang Dynasty.

Over the past few decades, the custom also developed in Taiwan of celebrating the holiday by gathering with family and friends to engage in barbecuing, typically on a small Japanese-style hibachi grill. The custom became so widespread, in fact, that the government has now sought to discourage the practice because of its contribution  to alarming levels of air pollution.  

Many people believe that the grilling craze was inspired by the Wan Ja Shan Brewery’s classic 1986 TV commercials for barbecue sauce, which popularized the slogan “一家烤肉萬家香,” (“one household grills meats and thousands enjoy the aroma”).

“Everyone remembers the commercial, but no one knows why [grilling is associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival],” says Eli Li, assistant marketing director at the Grand Hyatt Taipei. 

But Sam Fan, marketing consultant for Wan Ja Shan, is quick to correct what he says is a misperception, explaining that the grilling trend predated the commercial. That view is corroborated by a 1978 article in the Min Sheng Daily reporting on the increasing popularity of camping in scenic areas and roasting meat as ways to more fully enjoy the moon-gazing.

Once companies discovered that Taiwanese families enjoyed grilling meat outdoors during Mid-Autumn, they seized on the opportunity to develop and market barbecue sauces for the festive season. Wan Ja Shan, along with competitor Kimlan Soy Sauce, played an important role in developing today’s widespread association of the Mid-Autumn holiday with barbecues.

The consequence of the grilling during the holiday has raised concern within the government and among environmental groups. According to a 2013 report by the Taiwan Environmental Information Center, the level of airborne particulates (PM10) on Mid-Autumn Festival Eve was 1.7 times greater than on normal weekdays. To reduce the adverse health effects, the Center advises using slow-burning, smokeless charcoal and a gas stove or oven for barbecuing. Because of air pollution and littering, the Taipei City Government – much to the chagrin of grilled meat lovers – even placed a ban on barbecuing at riverside parks and certain other sites last year.

Innovative flavors

Another trend in recent years has been the appearance of much more variety in the types of mooncakes on the market. The traditional mooncake was baked with a limited number of different fillings – red bean paste being one of the most popular. A hard-boiled egg yolk was often placed in the middle to symbolize the full moon.

While some customers still prefer the traditional flavors, many people find them too rich for the modern diet and welcome a wider choice of options. The leading hotels and bakeries, who do a huge business each year in selling mooncakes – both for the buyer’s own consumption and for them to pass on as gifts – view each season as an opportunity to come up with new and appetizing variations.

Local accents in mooncakes are found in the flavors and even the gift boxes. Photo: Grand Hyatt Hotel

Ivy Peng, Food & Beverage Administration Manager at the Grand Hyatt Taipei, notes customers’ constant craving for something new: “Mooncakes are thousands of years old and people have gotten to know the flavors very well from eating them growing up,” she says. “But if you eat it every year, you might get tired of the same old flavors.” 

In recent years, Taiwanese chefs have experimented with more diverse and cosmopolitan flavors inspired by locally sourced ingredients. According to Kevin Zheng, Chef de Partie at the Regent Taipei, the modern definition of a mooncake is now quite broad. The local formulations may bear more similarities to Taiwanese pastries such as pineapple cake and sun cakes (taiyang bing) than to traditional Chinese mooncakes. 

In 2018, the Regent Taipei profiled an assortment of Taiwanese teas in their mooncakes, including Oolong, Baozhong Green Tea, Black Tea, and Taiwanese High Mountain Tea. “We try to take Taiwan’s local ingredients as a starting point and add the best elements from Western-style pastries to make a Taiwanese mooncake,” Zheng says.

Because the Regent Taipei serves an international clientele, Zheng attempts to harmonize Taiwanese ingredients and Western influences. He reports that in terms of sales, the most popular in recent memory was Imperial Moon, a mooncake made of King’s Cake crust and custard-pineapple filling. It was developed as part of the hotel’s commemoration of the 25th anniversary of its founding.

Zheng’s personal favorite, however, is Nusstorte, a German-inspired mooncake made with walnut dough, mixed nuts, pineapples, and caramel. East meets West fusion-style mooncakes have been so consistently in demand that the hotel began offering the Pineapple Custard Pastry, a rectangular pastry that hybridizes elements from mooncakes and pineapple cakes, as one of its year-round gift items. 

 Rather than choose between traditional and fusion flavor profiles, the Grand Hyatt Taipei offers customers a choice of two mooncake gift sets each year.  One contains smaller, unconventional mooncakes, while the other has larger, more traditional ones.

“You will see more classic flavors like XO scallop sauce, lotus seed, longan dates, and black sesame with walnut in bigger, Guangzhou-style mooncakes,” explains the hotel’s Eli Li, listing some of the flavors in the luxury edition.  

The more affordable business edition derives from a “tea and fruit” concept, in which three Taiwanese teas – Black Tea from Sun Moon Pavilion, Buckwheat Tea, and Baozhong Green Tea – are paired with three representative Taiwanese fruits: pineapple, passionfruit, and mango. Like the Regent, the Grand Hyatt strives to make Taiwan the primary inspiration for their mooncakes. This care extends to the gift box design, which derives from the flower-patterned mosaic tiles commonly used during the Japanese colonial period. 

In creating new flavors, Li observes that moderation is the key. “It’s best if new mooncake flavors aren’t too oily, salty, or sugary in order to appeal to health-conscious consumers,” he says. “New flavors should be fresh, but not too strong like durian. Consumers like a little bit of change but nothing too creative.”

Although the Hyatt is an international brand, it sees the need to adapt to the local market. “Engaging with local culture is very important for global brands to create a bridge between this piece of land and the rest of the world,” says Li. 

 As a melting pot for Asian and Western influences, Taiwan’s cultural identity lies in its ability not only to draw from many different traditions but also to forge new ones. For example, when asked how he celebrated the Moon Festival growing up, the first thing that came to mind for Li was the wearing of “pomelo hats.”

“It’s something I always did as a child,” he recalls. “Even as an adult, I’ll still wear the hats out of habit.”

This custom of wearing a skillfully carved pomelo rind on one’s head or placing them on the heads of children not only makes for an adorable visual but is also a unique addition to Taiwan’s Mid-Autumn festivities. While the origin of the pomelo hat is unclear, eating pomelos during the moon festival is common to Taiwan and the coastal cities across the south of China. One explanation is simple convenience: Pomelos are seasonally available from September to October, which perfectly coincides with the timing of the Mid-Autumn Festival. 

A fantasy cloudscape with stars and a full moon. This image features a pleasing paper texture and grain pattern visible at 100 percent.

The Festival Spirit

On the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival, families reunite to admire the moon’s celestial beauty. Parents might tell children the story of Chang-E, a lunar goddess doomed to eternal separation from her husband.

Or they might invoke a Tang poem that all Mandarin-speaking children were once required to commit to memory: Thoughts on a Tranquil Night (靜夜思), in which Li Bai wrote the classic lines “床 前 明 月 光, 疑 是 地 上 霜. 舉 頭 望 明 月, 低 頭 思 故 鄉.”

Moonlight in front of my bed.
Perhaps frost on the ground.
I lift my head and see the moon.
Lowering my head, I miss home.

The poem conjures up the solitary author, an exiled statesman-turned-poet, wistfully gazing at the moonlight beside his bed. The poem captures the desolation and nostalgia of spending the holidays far away from home. 

All holidays serve as a pretext to bring loved ones together, but the Mid-Autumn Festival infuses the spirit of family reunion and gratitude into its very essence. The Chinese word for reunion (團圓), whose literal translation is “gathering ’round,” recalls the shape of the moon and the foods traditionally eaten on this holiday.

The origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival date back to the Tang Dynasty, if not earlier. Accordingly, mooncakes have been around for thousands of years and may have even played a part in dynastic turnover. According to Chinese folklore, Ming revolutionary and founding emperor Chu Yuan-chang and his advisor Liu Po-wen distributed mooncakes to their followers containing instructions to revolt on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. The revolt eventually allowed them to succeed in overthrowing the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty. 

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