Often equated with Western Thanksgiving, the Mid-Autumn Festival is the time of year when family members reunite from around the world to celebrate the full moon, give thanks and enjoy each other’s company. It’s primarily celebrated by people of Chinese and Vietnamese heritage and falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar.
There’s no food more ubiquitous to the Mid-Autumn Festival than the mooncake, an ultrarich pastry traditionally filled with a dense lotus seed paste and a salted egg yolk at its center. Packaged in boxes with auspicious designs, these treats are given to friends, families and colleagues every year as a way to bless the receiver with longevity or harmony, and are often enjoyed together, cut into smaller pieces to eat alongside tea.
My family was no different, receiving boxes decorated in watercolor paintings gifted to us by members of our Chinese church when we couldn’t visit my family in China. But growing up in a predominantly white community, these annual treats felt like an audacious affront to my personal goal of blending in and going through life as un-Asian as possible.
I was taught that sweet treats shouldn’t have salted egg yolk centers, not to mention a thick lotus seed paste interior. And my palate, accustomed to cafeteria sugar cookies and ice cream social sundaes, thought that mooncakes were never sweet enough. I couldn’t appreciate the intricate designs nor the extravagant packaging, and they were an annual reminder that the foods I ate at home were intensely foreign from the ones I’d seen my peers eat, a thought that terrified me.
Despite my parents’ diligent efforts to educate me and help me appreciate them, the beautiful symbolism they carried was lost on me.
I’m thankful that, over time, I’ve learned to not only love my culture and heritage, but also the mooncakes that come around as the days grow shorter and the temperatures drop. Much like my annual Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks, I look forward to the boxes of mooncakes that start appearing in Asian supermarkets and in my family’s home as a decided mark of fall.
Mooncakes themselves have changed a bit, too. In addition to snow skin mooncakes, a Hong Kong original made with an exterior similar to mochi and filled with custard, you’ll also find ice cream mooncakes, chocolate-filled mooncakes and even cheesecake mooncakes.
Considering Starbucks China already has a line of its own (flavors include lava black sesame, light lime cheese, lava custard, citrus jasmine with raspberry, and coffee-flavored mooncakes), it’s probably only a matter of time before my two fall staples join forces and produce a pumpkin spice-flavored variety.
While it’s more common to buy mooncakes from Asian grocery stores, there are still bakeries and restaurants making their own. This year’s Mid-Autumn Festival lands on Tuesday, and restaurants and bakeries have already been preparing, creating and baking mooncakes for weeks. These are just a few places you can buy handmade mooncakes in Chicago.
Chiu Quon Bakery
Chinatown’s oldest Chinese bakery — which also boasts a second location on Argyle Street in Uptown — has been delighting customers with first-rate pastries, like the celebrated pineapple sweet top bun, since 1986. This week, it will be serving its three usual mooncakes — red bean, lotus and winter melon — which are available year-round. 2253 S. Wentworth Ave., 312-808-1818; 1127 W. Argyle St., 773-907-8888; cqbakery.com
Maa Maa Dei
This Asian American pop-up lies beyond Chinatown, but makes some of the prettiest mooncakes in town — and snow-skin ones, or sticky rice-wrapped, no less. Maa Maa Dei translates to “not great, just OK.” The hilariously self-deprecating name by chef and baker Jaye Fong seems clearly a spoof. This year, she’s offering preorders Monday on Instagram for her beautiful rainbow taro teochew-style mooncake, which customers can pick up Thursday or Friday. Rotating locations including Lakeview and Lincoln Park, instagram.com/maa.maa.dei
Head to this Chinatown bakery for a variety of classic mooncakes, filled with winter melon, lotus, or red bean paste. Double yolks are an option, as are a range of Chinese pastries and favorite entrees like wonton noodle soup. Ordering are also available on the Chowbus app. $7, or $27 for four pieces. 277 W. Cermak Road, 312-674-1368, ordersunlightcafe.com