They widen waistlines, lighten wallets and even spread anti-Japanese sentiments. To critics, their yearly appearance is associated with waste. But China’s centuries-long love affair with the mooncake is unstoppable. Eaten to celebrate the mid-autumn festival, when friends gather to admire the harvest moon, they have evolved to reach new heights of luxury.
Round or square, the palm-sized pastries – sometimes chewy, sometimes flaky – are decorated with patterns and traditionally filled with pastes such as lotus seed and sometimes salted duck egg yolks. As high in fat and sugar as they are rich in flavor, they are usually eaten in small wedges, accompanied by tea.
The latest fillings now include ham and rose petal, sea cucumber and peacock. Häagen-Dazs makes ice cream versions and Starbucks offers chocolate varieties. At the Chongqing Mooncake festival, the center piece is a 300kg monster.
They have even appeared in non-edible form. Gold shops sell solid discs styled to resemble the pastries. Last autumn, the makers of Angry Birds produced a special edition of the game with golden mooncake slices instead of eggs.
Though mooncakes are rarely eaten by the buyer – they are generally destined as gifts for friends, employees or business contacts – they say a lot about the purchaser. Young people tend to lean towards Häagen-Dazs mooncakes and stylish mooncakes. People who are a little bit older and more sentimental they tend to buy more traditional mooncakes, like red bean. Financial, technology or media companies are more likely to buy modern versions, while construction firms and manufacturers tend to choose cheaper, traditional varieties.
Mooncakes are also used to show political views: last week, as anti-Japanese protests spread through China, a nationalist baker produced a set of four with slogans on top including: “Bite Little Japan to death!”
Rising prices have caused authorities to step in and stop the excesses of the mooncake trade in recent years. Regulations now outlaw unnecessarily expensive packaging and including expensive bonus gifts, such as high-priced alcohol, in the boxes. “It was partly because of corruption, but also it was just a waste of resources,” said an official at the Beijing Association of Roasted Foods and Sweets.
Some customers worry at the health implications of the treats, which are around 800 calories apiece. A handful of firms claim to offer versions with lower fat and sugar, somewhat like to the idea of a healthy Christmas dessert. According to a Chinese news site, one brand boasts that its milk and papaya-flavored versions have a range of health benefits, including a more youthful appearance and larger breasts.
But there are signs that mooncakes may have become too popular for their own good. Because clients get so many mooncakes, some companies now send coupons instead. Recipients can order mooncakes – or something else entirely, such as French red wine, Chinese tea or Spanish olive oil. Younger people rarely bother exchanging mooncakes with friends these days. One businessman said, “Now it’s just a business thing. This year my boss gave me two or three boxes, but I haven’t bought mooncakes for anyone. I actually don’t really like them.”