Follow Me Foodie to Mid-Autumn Festival (Moon Festival) in Hong Kong!
Getting to know the components of a traditional home cooked Chinese dinner. Welcome to my Moon Festival Feast!
I didn’t even realize Follow Me Foodie to Hong Kong would be just in time for the Mid-Autumn Festival in Hong Kong! In my hometown Vancouver, BC it’s not a huge celebration although still celebrated. They call in “Hongcouver” for a reason. We have a lot of Chinese immigrants in Vancouver and although Chinese restaurants are guaranteed to be full and festivities happen at the Chinese malls, it was nothing like what I experienced in Hong Kong, of course.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is also known as the Moon Festival or Lantern Festival and it takes place on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese calender and it’s when the moon is the brightest all year. It’s usually in September or early October and this year it was on Sunday September 30, 2012. Although it’s widely known as a Chinese celebration, it’s actually celebrated by many Asian cultures including Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese and Vietnamese.
The Moon Festival celebrates the late harvest and Chang’e, who is the Moon Goddess of Immortality who lives in the moon. I’ve been told the story of the Moon Goddess a few times, but each one is different and I still don’t know it well enough to repeat on here, but you can look it up!
I’ve never experienced the Mid Autumn Festival in Hong Kong before so I was really excited. However people kept telling me that it was “no big deal” and that “nothing really happens”. They get the day off and it’s celebrated intensely in China, but in Hong Kong it’s not nearly as celebrated. It is the second most important day of the year after Chinese New Year though.
Being a tourist in Hong Kong I was keen to get in on all the Moon Festival festivities. At home I would typically go out for dim sum and dinner with friends and family, but what was I going to do in Hong Kong?
Well I was lucky enough to be invited to my friend’s Mid-Autumn Festival dinner with her family and friends. This was exactly what I wanted! I can eat at Chinese restaurants at home and generally it’s the same banquet style set menu, so a “dinner at home” experience was exciting for me.
On the table:
It was quite the spread! Chinese food is always served family style in big portions. Everything comes out at once and it all kind of goes together and people help themselves. There is no main course. The food here is Cantonese-Chinese food which is usually white rice and a bunch of dishes to go with it. This was a pretty typical spread and although everyone cooks differently at home, there are some staples that are expected at special feasts like these.
In Cantonese-Chinese culture it’s always about the rice whereas Northern China would be about the noodles. Cantonese cooking is centred around vegetables and the proteins are secondary, but there is typically always a protein. As much as Chinese people and Asians in general love fried eggs, seeing fried eggs at the dinner table is a sign of a “filler”. Usually it’s the dish that’s made when there doesn’t look like there is enough food.
Condiments are also typical and everyone is served a condiment dish with their chopsticks and soup spoons.
Chinese soup. Before you even get to your rice you have to have soup. It’s not an option either. It’s the “bread and butter” or “salad” or Chinese dinners. It doesn’t matter how formal or casual the dinner is. A bowl of hot soup is a must and saying “no” to this would be impolite. At a restaurant it might come after a few appetizers, but generally where there is a Chinese dinner, there will be soup.
The Chinese believe that it’s healthy to start a meal with a hot bowl of soup and this is the “drink” at dinner. Traditionally the Chinese only drink soup with their meal and not water or any cold drinks. Tea doesn’t even show up at the table until the very end, or unless you’re at a Chinese restaurant. The soup has to be boiling hot as well. They tend to dislike warm soups.
Chinese soups are generally very nutritious and healthy. Traditionally the type of soup served and ingredients required are based on the weather, state of health of the people drinking it, and how they create balance in the body. It’s the “Yin and Yang” philosophy I mentioned in my post here. Some ingredients carry “yin” (cooling) properties and some carry “yang” (heating) properties and it’s when they are used together that they create harmony in the body.
I’m stereotyping, but a lot of traditional Chinese mothers like it when North American raised Chinese girls know how to make a pot of traditional Chinese soup. There is so much you have to know so it’s quite impressive if they can. There are also an endless list of Chinese herbs and ingredients and to know their nutritional benefits is something you have to work at. It goes way beyond what tastes good together.
Generally Chinese soups are stock based and made from either chicken, Chinese cured ham, pork or fish. There are vegetarian soups as well and all of them include various Chinese herbs. These herbs are usually dried and have medicinal properties. Dairy in any form is almost never used in Chinese soup. To thicken soups the Chinese will either let it reduce naturally or use natural starches from vegetables.
Pork is the most popular red meat in a Chinese diet. Roasted suckling pig and barbeque pork can be made at home, but very rarely would anyone make it at home, especially the suckling pig. It’s far too convenient to buy on the street and there are some excellent butcher shops in Hong Kong. It’s the same as in Vancouver. Typically people would purchase some meats from their butcher shop and then make some side dishes and vegetables at home to go along with it.
The suckling pig and its crispy red skin is symbolic for good luck. Red is associated with luck and at Chinese weddings a sucking pig is standard. It’s supposed to represent the bride and her virginity. Suckling pig is a staple at any Chinese celebration though including the birth of a child, house warming or grand opening of a business.
Chicken is also quite popular and it’s typical to have a whole one at a special occasion dinner. Consider it the “turkey” of Chinese celebrations. A whole chicken is symbolic for wholeness, togetherness, fetility and prosperity. The chicken represents a phoenix and they also bring it out to honour the gods and past ancestors.
A whole fish is also very typical of a Chinese dinner. Again the whole fish is served to show wholeness and it represents prosperity as well as freshness. At a formal Chinese banquet this would come out near the end. The fish is always steamed and served with soy sauce and covered with cilantro. At this point many people refill their rice just for the soy sauce used in this fish dish. It’s usually a fish soy sauce and not the standard sharp and salty soy sauce.
The fish tail and head are considered to be the best parts and they say only “real fish eaters” know how to appreciate and eat the whole thing. I mentioned thins in my Lin Heung Tea House post too.
Wait. Soup again? I thought we already talked about the soup? Well I did, but it also comes out again at the end of a traditional Chinese meal. The Chinese believe that hot soup at the end of a meal aids in digestion and helps satisfy the appetite. Sometimes hot tea would be served at the end of the meal, but not always. If hot tea is served it will be pu-erh which has less caffeine and helps with digestion.
And where’s the dessert? The Chinese, and Asian cultures in general, are not big on desserts. They have some, but not many and they usually involve some type of sweetened bean or hot sweet soup. Sometimes there are desserts that come out with the dinner too, and they’re never really that sweet.
Instead of dessert they eat fruit for dessert. Of course fruit helps with digestion, but they are also symbolic for good luck and a fresh start. Since it was the Moon Festival they brought out a pomelo which is symbolic for family and unity. It’s also big and round like the moon so it’s the choice of fruit during Mid-Autumn Festival. Usually one would bring this as a gift along with oranges, mandarins, dragon fruits, Chinese pears and other fruits.
If this was a regular Chinese dinner I wouldn’t expect dessert (well maybe some red bean soup if it was at a restaurant), but I did expect it this time because it was the Moon Festival. I was waiting for the Moon Cakes!
I don’t even like most moon cakes, but I was looking forward to completing my Chinese New Year dinner experience. Little did I know that eating moon cakes was a whole new event with a dedicated place and time.
We waited until around 9:30pm and then we headed to Victoria Park which is a public park in Hong Kong. It’s where all the Mid-Autumn festivities were taking place including the dragon dances and elaborate lantern displays. The festival is popular with children because they get to bring out their lanterns, light them with candles and walk around with them.
It was amazing! How could this be considered “nothing”? Everyone kept saying Mid-Autumn Festival wasn’t a big deal and just an event for the kids, but I beg to differ! It’s only because the locals in Hong Kong are immune to these festivities that it’s become “not a big deal”. Whereas for me? For me it was a huge deal and a big celebration. I was so happy to witness it.
And of course you can buy moon cakes there too. Kee Wah Bakery is probably the most popular place for moon cakes in Hong Kong. It’s a chain bakery, but they are famous for their moon cakes. We have one in Vancouver too. Every Chinese bakery and even some restaurants will be making them. Lin Heung Tea House is another famous spot for them. These are often given as gifts and many people trade moon cakes during Mid-Autumn Festival.
This was probably my favourite part of my whole Mid-Autumn Festival experience in Hong Kong. After the dragon dance everyone heads to the grass for a picnic! You bring your own blanket, lanterns, candles and food and this is the part where you sit and eat while gazing at the moon.
It was my first time celebrating the Moon Festival to this extent so it was all very new to me. I’ve lit the candles and walked around with a lantern around my own neighbourhood with my parents as a kid, but that’s about it. In Vancouver we don’t actually go out to have picnics at midnight and gaze at the moon while eating moon cakes. Some people might do it, but it’s certainly not a public gathering and tradition like it was in Hong Kong.
My friend had prepared about 10-12 moon cakes from 10-12 bakeries. It was great! It reminded me of my Stollen Smackdown when my friends and I bought 18 stollen from 18 bakeries to find “the best” one. It was Moon Cake Madness! I don’t even know where all the moon cakes were from, but the most interesting one was the one she received from Thailand. It was a durian moon cake and the first time I’ve come across it. If you like durian you would have loved it! I only like durian in Asia (tastes much better there) and I really liked it.
Moon cakes are incredible rich and indulgent desserts. They’re made with lotus seed paste and have a thin pastry like shell on the outside. The salted duck egg yolk in the middle of the cake represents the moon and they make ones with 2 and 4 yolks too. They can get up to $20 for one moon cake and usually those have 4 egg yolks. The cakes are cut diagonally and shared.
There are hundreds of versions of moon cakes and each culture has their own version too. The Taiwanese ones have a flakey pastry shell and the Chinese ones have a shortbread like pastry shell. The Korean and Japanese ones tend to have mochi shells and nowadays there are ice cream moon cakes too. Some have nuts and seeds and dried fruits and there are even “BC ones” made with local BC ingredients including honey, hazelnuts and blueberries. The ice cream ones are my favourite! If you’re in Vancouver you can buy them at T&T Supermarket, but only during the season.
And then you gaze at the moon… which I couldn’t even see. This was the moon! It’s supposed to be at its brightest, but there was a huge cloud covering it. Oh well. This was really a marginal part of my Moon Festival experience even though it was the whole reason for the celebration. The excellent meal, great time with friends, and even new appreciation for moon cake made up for the lack of moon I saw. (_|_) There! Another type of moon for you! Ha! Thank you and good night.