Making a centuries-old folk tradition feel contemporary is no easy feat. But pastel-hued pastries, luxury ingredients and big brand power are a potent mix that's given the Mid-Autumn Festival new life.
The second biggest date on the Chinese lunar calendar, the festival (21 September this year) is usually celebrated with family gatherings, temple visits and colourful lanterns. But, most commonly, it's about small pastries called mooncakes, traditionally filled with salted egg yolk and lotus seed paste.
Originally a time to worship the moon for a plentiful harvest, Mid-Autumn (or Moon) Festival has evolved over the past 3000 years into a celebration of family and giving thanks. But today it's also hotly anticipated for the flamboyant creations of bakers, fashion houses and multinationals such as Starbucks, as the businesses seek to outdo one another with their mooncakes.
"Growing up, the flavours in Asia are like a thing," says Malaysian-born Melbourne baker Raymond Tan. "We're slowly catching up here."
Tan's CBD bakery Raya created six mooncake flavours this year, many of them based on sweets he normally serves. Round mooncakes with an etched pattern on top come in flavours of black sesame and miso, rose and pistachio, and traditional lotus seed.
Tan grew up eating teochew-style mooncakes and was sad to see them dying out a few years ago, so he started baking the treats. The fat-enriched pastry is dyed in soft pastels and filled with pineapple, purple sweet potato (ube), and lotus and almond (pictured below).
Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and other countries with a long history of Chinese migration all celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival. In Thailand you're likely to see lots of grapefruit and peaches, as their shape corresponds to the moon. Durian-flavoured mooncakes are also popular there. A traditional filling in Vietnam is mixed nuts and melon rind with egg yolk.
Hong Kong and Singapore's many luxury hotels will release new flavours of mooncake each year, such as black truffle with red bean paste. Pastries are tucked into elaborate boxes that are status symbols in their own right.
Melbourne bakery Fellow Mart is another that's pushing the local mooncake scene forward. It specialises in snow skin mooncakes, a steamed and pillowy alternative to the traditional baked kind. A runaway success across Asia, snow skin cakes at Fellow come in matcha (green tea), durian, Oreo and chocolate flavour.
Both Fellow and Raya sold out well before the big day. Tan started preparing at Raya in June, hiring extra staff and calling on friends and family to help pack and deliver orders. He sold 3,000 mooncakes in just 48 hours – half of them gifts – and has spent the past three weeks baking between the regular shop hours and Melbourne's curfew to fulfil the orders.
For the second year in Melbourne, the social aspect of the festival is off the table. Food, however, is not. Mooncakes filled with lotus seed paste are going into this weekend's takeaway boxes from Bia Hoi, the Glen Waverley restaurant chef Jerry Mai opened as a Vietnamese-style beer hall in 2019. Her at-home menus change each week and for Mid-Autumn, she's making traditional celebration foods such as roast duck with vermicelli noodle rolls. Mai's mother, Leanne Lai, is even preparing her chicken curry for the boxes, a dish she normally brings to altars as an offering, while Lai's friends are contributing the mooncakes. Mai is also throwing in accordion lanterns, another Moon Festival mainstay.
Peking duck platters from David's bring Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations home. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
High-end yum cha restaurant David's in Prahran is offering Peking duck platters until September 21, which can feed a whole family and then some. Twice-roasted duck comes deboned and just needs to be warmed, a smart option for a year in which the usual family feasts will be significantly scaled down.
Mai is hopeful that, after missing out on taking her four-year-old son to the temple the past two years, next year's Mid-Autumn Festival will be different.
"As a child I loved it. We would get together with our friends and play with fire [lanterns] – it was great."
But there are still the mooncakes. Tan says his favourite part about the day is the gift-giving between friends and families. "It's exciting because you might try [a mooncake] you've never had before. Even the unboxing is exciting."
Celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival at home
You'll have to try your luck next year for avant-garde mooncakes from Raya, Fellow Mart or Amour Desserts – all sold out weeks ago. For more traditional pastries, seek out brands such as Maxim or Wing Wah at Asian grocers.
David's Peking duck, dumplings and more are available for delivery to Melbourne and major regional cities through online platform Providoor. Orders closed for Bia Hoi's at-home boxes at 5pm on Friday, but next week's box will be advertised on Monday through its Instagram page.