In Chinese culture, every major lunar calendar holiday has accompanying legends.
For the Mid-Autumn Festival, there's the story of Houyi, an archer who saves a scorched earth by shooting nine suns out of the sky.
Houyi's reward is an immortality elixir that allows him to ascend to heaven. When his apprentice comes to steal the potion, Houyi's wife, Chang'e, swallows it to protect it. She floats away to the moon and her husband is left on earth. They're separated forever.
In 2021, perhaps it's fitting that a tale of separation marks an occasion that's usually about togetherness. The Mid-Autumn Festival occurs on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month (usually mid-September to October), celebrating the harvest and when the moon appears brightest in the sky.
The festival is observed in China and east Asia, from Singapore to Japan. Families gather at home for an evening feast and children parade with candle-lit paper lanterns. Under the light of the moon, people share tea and mooncakes, small pastries traditionally filled with salted egg yolk and lotus seed paste. This year, the main day for celebration is September 21.
"Mid-Autumn Festival is all about the reunion," says Junda Khoo, owner-chef of Ho Jiak Malaysian restaurants in Strathfield and Haymarket. "More important than the food, or mooncakes, it's about family being together."
In Malaysia, Khoo's amah (grandmother) cooked a family feast. "The food is different for every family depending on where in China your ancestors come from. We usually had tau eu bak (soy-braised pork belly), assam nyonya fish and steamed chicken."
For sweets, the family ate mooncakes and tang yuen, glutinous rice balls cooked in sugar syrup, pandan and ginger. "My grandma spoon-fed one rice ball to each of us to symbolise our obedience," Khoo says.
Michael Thai of Cabramatta institution Bau Truong recalls Vietnamese Mid-Autumn festivities fondly. "We call it Tet Trung Thu, or the Children's Festival," he says, "As a child, it's massive. Streets are full of stalls selling handmade bamboo and paper lanterns.
"We always tried to organise a children's lantern parade in the neighbourhood, but the festival coincides with monsoon season, and it always rained. The next year we would forget the rain and make our plans again."
Vietnamese mooncakes are unique and near impossible to find in Sydney. Some are shaped like pigs, from cute smiling heads to sows suckling piglets. There are also banh deo – sticky rice mooncakes with a similar texture to Japanese mochi.
"Banh deo is made from sticky rice flour and the skin is very thick," Thai says. "Because Vietnam is tropical, we have coconut fillings and mung beans mixed with durian."
Like Khoo's memories of celebrating in Malaysia, in Vietnam the family gathering is usually done at home. "It's rare that you would go out and eat," Thai says.
That's partly because an important ritual is the moon offering. "We have a round table at the front of the house. There's an incense burner, fruit mooncake, taro and cu au, a type of water chestnut we only have at this time of year."
Thai Kee IGA has been a fixture in Haymarket for 25 years. For Mid-Autumn Festival, the family-owned supermarket usually sets up stalls in Market City decked out with lanterns.
"It's really festive. The staff are all wearing red," says Thai Kee director Wendy Lin. "Families come after yum cha to buy mooncakes as gifts.
"We sell four main types – traditional Cantonese mooncakes made of pastry filled with white or red lotus seed paste and up to four salted duck egg yolks. Lava mooncakes are newer, with a liquid custard filling, and snowskins are made with mochi skin and have ice-cream inside. There's also puff, made with a crisp pastry and filled with traditional or modern fillings."
Sydney's lockdown will continue during this year's Mid-Autumn Festival, and family gatherings over Zoom are a poor substitute for the real thing. The tradition endures through mooncakes.
"Mooncakes are round, intended for sharing," Lin says. "This year we can't do that, we can't visit, so we're sending them to our loved ones instead."
Khoo has been creative in his plans to celebrate virtually with his family in Sydney. "I've got my candles and sparklers ready to go," he says. "We've got to improvise.
"A lot of people miss their family. International borders are closed. We should use this time to be thankful we're alive, and know we'll be together again soon."
Mooncakes to seek out for Mid-Autumn Festival
Many mooncakes, including Golden Century's exclusive treats, have sold out for this year's festival, but takeaway and delivery is still available for the below sweets at the time of publication if you're quick, not to mention myriad brands at Thai Kee IGA.
Sweet Lu's mooncake offering spans the traditional and the innovative. There are white lotus paste mooncakes and milk bubble tea or taro snowy mooncakes. But the Haymarket shop is best known for its lava custard version, a dense cake with a liquid centre. Shop 2A, 63-69 Dixon Street, Haymarket.
Dulcet Cakes and Sweets
Mooncakes are rich and filling, so Dulcet makes mini mooncakes at five grams each. Exquisitely designed boxes of six come with three flavours: golden custard with salted duck egg, sweet red bean combined with coconut and tart mango, and spicy beef with a parmesan pastry.
"In one box we try to combine two sweet flavours and two savoury," says Dulcet owner Vivienne Li. "The chilli beef goes really well with beer." Li says she has been much busier this lockdown than last year. "We started selling to corporate clients in April and then to the public in August." Order through dulcetcakessweets.com.au for home delivery.
The Martin Place hotel's mooncakes are inspired by its Singaporean roots. The gift boxes have four flavours: mixed nuts with satay, lotus seed paste, oolong tea with dried cranberries and assam lotus with mango for a sweet and sour option. Call The Fullerton on 02 8223 1111 to order for collection.