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Of Mid Autumn and Moon Cakes in Kolkata

Of Mid Autumn and Moon Cakes in Kolkata
Moon cakes are an important part of the Autumn festival , Photo Credit: Shutterstock
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Here's a celebration of the luminous autumn pastry — the signature dish of the Mid-Autumn Festival, which commemorates the full moon and the fall harvest.

Uttara Gangopadhyay
May 16 , 2022
03 Min Read

The image of a lovely designer cake on a digital media post caught my attention. It was a mooncake and it was being made by a Chinese chef in Kolkata. But what was a mooncake, I wondered? Which made me turn to Robert Hsu, a young member of the Indian Chinese Association who I had met earlier in the year during a walk through India’s oldest China Town sprawling across Tiretta Bazaar neighbourhood in central Kolkata.   

“It is part of the Moon Festival, which is the second most popular festival for the Chinese next to the New Year,” said Robert Hsu, “but not many people know about this because it is mostly celebrated within the family.” Robert Hsu’s family is one of the few ethnic Chinese Indian families who still call Kolkata home.

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The Moon Festival, observed on the 15th day of the eighth Lunar month of the Chinese calendar, is rooted in legends and made popular by a political aspiration in the 14th century. This year, the Moon Festival is on October 1.

An artisanal moon cake

According to the legend, one mid-autumn night, Chang Er, tired of being stuck on earth as her husband – archer Hong Yi – refused to leave for heaven, stole the ‘immortality pill’ from him and floated to the moon. It was so sudden that she could only snatch up her pet jade rabbit. Ever since, they have been trying to concoct a pill that would get them back to earth. Since then, their shadows are visible on that particular day.

According to Chinese custom, on this day, families get together to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival (Chung Chou Chi), which consists of ‘moon viewing’, and eating moon cakes, fruits, shell boiled groundnuts, and green tea. According to Hsu, pomelo is the preferred fruit.

It is said that in the 14th century, people who had risen as rebels against the Mongol rule, found an innovative way to exchange messages – by hiding them inside moon cakes. When the Mongols were overthrown and the Ming dynasty of the Han people came to power, the tradition of sharing moon cakes with family and friends continued.

Moon cakes are also offered as a mark of respect to senior members of the community as well as an offering to the spirit of the ancestors.

According to Hsu, buying moon cakes is a recent phenomenon because earlier it used to be made by the family members.

Chef Alex Li, also from Kolkata, and who had baked that awesome looking moon cake, reiterated Hsu’s feeling. “I cherish the memories of my mother making the moon cakes while all the siblings helped out in the kitchen,” said Li. “The Moon Festival is about togetherness and keeping alive the tradition and techniques of making the cakes.”

According to Li, there are two versions of moon cakes. “One, in which the pastry skin is baked. And the Snow Skin, which is not baked,” he said. There are different kinds of fillings that go into these cakes, such as lotus paste, red beans, yam, roasted five nuts, and salted duck eggs. The lotus paste usually goes with the Snow Skin. “In Kolkata, the pastry skin with red beans and five nuts are the best sellers,” said Li. “These happen to be my favourites too,” he added with a smile. Li makes the moon cakes according to the traditional recipe which has been passed down by his grandmother.

 Colourful lanterns during Mid-Autumn Festival

Much to Hsu’s regret, the custom of lantern making has almost died. Even a few years back, the Association would hold lantern parades. Children would make these paper lanterns, often as part of a competition. Apart from the paper lanterns, there would be lanterns in the shape of rabbits, fish, aeroplanes, etc.

With the number of long-settled Chinese families of Kolkata dwindling fast, moon cakes may soon be a thing of the past too. So go ahead and buy a few while they are still being baked. 

This article is from our Story Bank. It was first published in October 2020.


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