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Mooncakes: China’s Pastry of Status (and Corruption)

There is much more to mooncakes than calories.

Would you eat a quarter pound of lard? How about a 10 cm wide, 3 cm thick puck of Crisco? Apparently, I would.

Mooncakes are the quintessential indulgence of China’s Mid-Autumn Festival. At up to 1,000 calories a pop they are probably one of the more energy dense foods in the culinary catalog of humanity. The caloric count of these things can probably be weighted with a scale: they are heavy. Seriously, think hockey puck heavy here. I know of no other food on the planet as packed with fat as mooncakes . . . that still look somewhat appetizing. And they do look good. In fact, I need to be honest here, many varieties taste damn good, too.

Generally, mooncakes are round pastries that are roughly 10 cm wide and 3 or 4 cm thick. They consist of a thin crust that can be stuffed with a wide variety of fillings, such as red beans, lotus seed paste, a variety of fruit pastes, and salted duck egg yolks. Though no matter what they’re packed with the thick, Crisco like consistency is a constant.

As I mentioned above, each ten centimeter mooncake can have more calories than two and a half egg and sausage McMuffins. That’s more than a meal in and of itself — in fact, it’s half a day’s recommended caloric intake for an average size adult. This high fat content is because the crust and innards of these pastries are mostly lard or vegetable oil.

It sounds disgusting. But, then again, cookies are mainly slabs of butter spiced up with flour and sugar, and I can’t say I have any adverse reactions to eating them . . .

That said, there are good mooncakes and then there are completely horrid, putrid, puke-triggering mooncakes. What kind you will get either depends on how well you can read Chinese or the luck of the draw. Each mooncake either has its filling written into the design on its crust or is stamped onto its outer package. If you are Chinese illiterate you take your chances — and believe me it is a gamble. Going in thinking that you’re going to bite down into delicious sweet bean paste but getting a mouth full of salty duck egg yolk is a Chinese rite of passage that is probably better to avoid.

Well, if you have a typical Western palate that is. Though I have yet to meet a foreigner who delights in eating salted duck egg yolks. Really, they are worse than they sound.

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Mooncakes are a very symbolic pastry. They are mainly eaten in China during the Mid-Autumn Festival. The significance is pretty evident: this is a celebration that’s symbolically linked with the moon and mooncakes are round . . . like the moon. Too add an additional connection, one of the reasons why egg yolks are a popular filling for mooncakes is because they are also round and yellow . . . like the moon.

In addition to having their fillings labeled on the crust, mooncakes tend to also have the Chinese characters for “longevity” or “harmony” along with the name of the bakery that made them and maybe even a likeness of Lady Chang’e, flowers, plants, or a rabbit, which is also a symbol for the moon in China. Well, if you go out and buy high quality mooncakes that is (I’m cheap and bought the cheapest ones I could find, which are brashly deficient in these more intricate designs).

Part of the intrigue of mooncakes seems to actually be the fact that they are incredibly expensive. No, they are ridiculously expensive. Seriously, you’re looking at spending between $20 and $250+ for a small box of these pastries. Part of the reason for this is because mooncakes are the quintessential gift to give your family, friends, and associates during the Mid-Autumn Festival. 90% of all mooncakes are said to be purchased for the purpose of giving to others. For this reason they usually come in ornately decorated boxes and tins, which turn a set of brown, not very beautiful looking pastries into an all out gift.

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What’s more is that, as mooncakes are proudly displayed in all the shops around this holiday, everybody knows roughly how much each box costs. Therefore, what you are doing when you gift mooncakes isn’t just exchanging fattening sweets, but are taking part in an exchange of social status. Giving these opulently packaged, expensive pastries is a way of looking good, of impressing others, showing respect, building relationships, and, very often, attempting to gain the favor of the recipient. It’s not just pucks of lard that’s being passed around here, it’s guangxi — the great Chinese exchange of social connections, obligations, favors, and status.

Though what’s being given in those ornately decorated boxes often isn’t merely just mooncakes. There is a saying in China that you should never re-gift unopened mooncakes, and this is because they are often used as a vehicle to gift money or transport bribes. The Mid-Autumn Festival is the prime time in the Chinese calendar for such exchanges, as the giving of gifts on this holiday does not necessitate a personal visit like Spring Festival, so “presents” can be mailed to whoever, wherever. The connection between mooncakes and bribery is so interwoven in China that the central government has stepped in and prohibited government officials from purchasing mooncakes with public funds. Reputedly, this move alone was enough to cripple the entire mooncake industry.

The mooncake is as packed full of social significance, symbolism, and meaning as they are with calories. I am going to go brush the thick layer vegetable oil off my tongue now.

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Filed under: Celebrations, China, Culture and Society, Food

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3547 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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