If there’s one festival that makes Chinese people more homesick than Chinese New Year, it would be Mid-Autumn Festival, celebrated every August 15 on the lunar calendar, when the moon is fullest. This is a time for reunion, a concept represented by the shape of the full moon.
But lately, you might also know the Mid-Autumn Festival for something else: As the time when people on social media collectively kvetch about mooncakes, the traditional delicacy of this holiday.
It’s not just that mooncakes are, generally speaking, fat-packed mushy messes containing 700 to 1,000 calories (nearly half of one’s daily calorie intake). It’s that in China, people from different parts of the country have never actually agreed on their preferred flavors — which is maybe why companies are always coming up with new ones, trying to find one that sticks.
This year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, which came and went this past Friday, saw a range of classic mooncakes and newfangled creations sit side by side in online stores. Below is a rundown on some of the ones we saw.
Most popular flavor: Egg yolk lotus seed (莲蓉蛋黄 lián róng dànhuáng)
According to sales data from JD.com, this year’s most popular mooncake was the classic lotus mooncake with egg yolk, which combines sweet and salty characteristics. These pastries aren’t big to begin with, but the egg yolk lotus seed mooncake is best consumed in even smaller wedges, washed down with tea.
If eating mooncakes isn’t your thing, you can still admire the intricate designs sometimes carved on them, such as rabbits (a symbol of the moon) or Chang’e, the Chinese goddess of the moon.
Most controversial (yet still popular): Five nuts (伍仁 wǔ rén)
These mooncakes are, like the name suggests, filled with nuts, usually some variety of: walnut, Chinese almond (which are actually apricot kernels), regular almond, peanut, sunflower seed, and sesame seed. A savory element comes with the addition of Chinese hard-cured ham and bits of pork fat.
Mmm, delicious. Also, disgusting? That’s what the internet has been saying, anyway, as this mooncake has recently come under fire for its confused jumble of flavors.
Maybe because of the controversy, sales of this mooncake actually increased 54 percent from last year, according to sales data from the website Fanli.com. As the saying goes, all publicity is good publicity.
The online darling: Lava custard (奶黄流心 nǎi huáng liú xīn)
This novelty mooncake saw a 140 percent spike in sales this year, according to Fanli, despite its higher price. The internet, of course, played an important role. If Instagram was accessible in China, we’d say the lava custard mooncake is the most Instagrammable: when cut open, a savory golden “lava” flows out, which is a mixture of salted egg yolk and custard. The visual is arresting, and the taste…who cares!
The regional (Shanghai) preference: Meat-stuffed/fresh pork (鲜肉 xiān ròu)
Northerners scorn southerners’ obsession with stuffing meat into everything. Why would anyone turn a sweet pastry into a thick-skinned dumpling? It doesn’t matter. The Shanghai market is more than big enough to sustain this variety. According to data from Shanghai-based Ele.me (owned by Alibaba), Shanghai accounts for 53 percent of this meat-stuffed “mooncake” — otherwise known as, to everyone else, a meat biscuit (烧饼 shāobǐng).
The bougie option: Starbucks (星巴克 Xīngbākè) mooncake
The Starbucks mooncake exists simply because it can. The name sells itself. Although opinions about its taste and price (high) are divided, no one can deny the exquisite design and fancy packaging, which makes it a perfect option for gifting. And re-gifting, as it were.
The successful spin-off: Boba tea (波霸奶茶 bōbà nǎichá) mooncakes
There’s no denying it: the Chinese love bubble tea. Savvy milk tea store owners have recently gotten into the festival spirit to create boba tea mooncakes, complete with chewy tapioca pearls baked inside. Gimmicky? Perhaps. But they wouldn’t exist if diehard bubble tea fans didn’t demand them.
The novelty: salmon wasabi (三文鱼芥末 sānwènyú jièmò)
Huh? Yeah. While outside many people’s comfort zone, salmon wasabi mooncakes are available at Fresh Hema, Alibaba’s online-to-offline store. It is what it sounds like: salmon is baked inside, with wasabi sauce in the crust.
“Is there anything that can’t be stuffed into mooncakes?” those on the internet asked.
The answer is evidently no. We can’t wait to see what people come up with next year, even if we might not be eating them.