Mooncakes: Celebrating The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival
Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, known as “Tet Trung Thu,” is Vietnam’s second most popular holiday, and a day to make mooncakes.
In Ho Chi Minh City, the appearance of pop-up yellow and red stalls announces the coming of the Moon Festival, a lesser-known holiday to foreigners, yet the second most widely celebrated Vietnamese holiday. Traditionally falling on the 15th day of the 8th Lunar Month (September/October), the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival is a celebration of family as it marks the end of the harvest season, when farming villagers are finally able to return focus on their children. In Hanoi, youths parade around carp-shaped lanterns, in memoriam of a carp demon who in the olden days, went on a murdering spree before being frightened away by the glowing light of the lanterns. Across the country, there are dragon dances featuring the Vietnamese Lord of Earth, Ong Dia. And you’ll see the appearance of mooncakes in every bakery and teahouse.
The Legend of the Moon Festival in Vietnam
Another origin story is the Legend of Thằng Cuội, a story of a man and his magical banyan tree, which was rumored to restore life to the dead. He instructed his wife to water the tree daily with the purest water, but one day, she forgot to water it and at the sight of her husband returning home from work, she quickly urinated on it instead. The tree began to grow uncontrollably and so Cuội was forced to cut it down. But his axe got stuck in the branches and he was whisked away to the moon, where he’s been stranded ever since. Only once a year, when the children light the path to earth with their lanterns, is Cuội able to return home.
Like China, where the mid-autumn moon festival is also celebrated, Vietnam follows suit in the tradition of exchanging mooncakes. Mooncakes, called Bánh Trung Thu, are hearty pastries filled with either a sweet or savory creamy filling, rendered into the shape of a full moon. The skin of the pastry is traditionally stamped with wishes of goodwill and fortune, but on the streets of Saigon and in the cupboards of boutique eateries, I saw mooncakes sculpted into delicate blossoms or shaped into the Chinese Zodiac animal being celebrated that year. You can go the homemade route, buy wholesale from the makeshift sidewalk stalls, or collect artisanal at upper crust bakeries. The pastries tend to be overly sweet and calorie heavy so usually, one cake is cut into little segments and shared between family members. The sweetness is typically cut with a cup of with herbal tea.
How I Celebrated Mid-Autumn Moon Festival
Last year, a Saigon native named Michelle invited women around the city to bake mooncakes for local orphanages through the best expat resource in Saigon, Female Expats and Locals in Ho Chi Minh City. (Side note: If you are a female and plan on moving to Saigon, this group will have your back throughout your stay.) Since Mid-Autumn Festival doubles as a second Children’s Day, the gesture of making 200 animal-shaped mooncakes for orphaned youth in my surrogate city was all the more important. Joining me was my friend Kellie, who runs the American English conversation platform Talk One.
Making mooncakes is PAINSTAKING. After a grueling six hours of careful measuring, endless kneading, and tiresome stirring of our various concoctions, I will never take another mooncake for granted. Every aspect of making mooncakes is so deliberate and a process of trial by error so if you attempt the recipe below, be patient yourself. Michelle is a devout baker and shared with us a family recipe. The difference between homemade mooncakes and storebought is so stark, I don’t think I could ever go back to eating factory manufactured ones pumped with preservatives for better shelf-life. One thing I noticed about all the pop-up stalls selling mooncakes throughout the Mid-Autumn festival season is that the day after, there was still so much excess since there were so many stalls. I assume they’re resold in markets the following year, which makes me a bit wary supporting wholesale sellers instead of mom-and-pop bakeries. Out of the year and a half of living in Vietnam, making mooncakes was one of my top ten experiences because I got to eat for a good cause and met some pretty phenomenal, giving women in Saigon.
ABOUT THE INGREDIENTS
- This was my first introduction to golden syrup, a simple syrup recipe that calls for the syrup to be aged. The golden syrup is crucial in making mooncakes as it determines the color and fragrance of the mooncake skin. Make sure you prepare this sweetener in advance.
- Caster sugar is a finer version of granulated sugar, but don’t mistake it for powdered sugar.
- Invest in a food scale and make sure you have a blender handy.
- If your dough feels too sticky, add the flour in small increments. You need a semi-soft dough; if it gets too dry, the dough will crack when you try to wrap it around the filing.
- For the animal faces, used uncooked black beans. Put aside some dough for ligaments like ears and a tail.
WATCH THE TUTORIAL VIDEO TO GET ALL THE STEPS RIGHT
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I had heard about the moon cake but never knew this story behind the festival & how it is prepared.. I loved the story how the tree grew uncontrollably..looks a bit weird but it’s interesting.. Also, looks like you had a great time baking the cakes.. Now that you’ve written the recipe i’ll try to make one here in my country too!
Kavita Favelle | Kavey Eats
I love mooncakes but I confess I have not tried to make them. I thought about it, but went to my local China Town shops instead! I love the sheer variety of flavours available these days! Lovely to learn about the traditions and stories in Vietnam.
I never even heard of this festival before. Looks very interesting and looks like you had so much fun 🙂
I love festivals that are associated with harvest season. I wasn’t aware of moon festival in Vietnam, however, it looks worth celebrating even if you are not from Vietnam. Mooncakes in the last photo look cute and appear they are just waiting to start walking.
I never knew mooncakes would be that difficult to make and that makes it so special! What a great experience. And those mooncakes look really cute!
Awe Izzy. This sounds like so much fun! Your awesome video makes me sad that I don’t have a kitchen to give these a go! They turned put so stinkin’ adorable! It looks like a truly wonderful group of women to share the experience with as well!
Sandy N Vyjay
The Autumn Moon festival sounds really exciting. Around the same time in India Diwali is celebrated. Looking at some of the moon cakes, I could see an uncanny resemblance to some of the dishes that are made in India during festivals. Just goes to prove that we are all connected in some manner and probably the origins of all cultures can be traced to the same roots.
Ahh babe, so cute!! Nice work with the video editing! – Kudos to make it look that good from that early filming experiment of mine haha Miss youuu and your experience-seeking force that kept me trying new things around here! :(( I can’t wait to see ur Saigon favs video soon I hope!? :))
I have never heard about the Autumn Moon festival earlier and this seems really interesting. I am intrigued by the story too. Your video and pictures are really nice and you have done a wonderful job baking them. They looks yummy too. By the way; this is celebrated at almost the same time we celebrate Diwali in India.
Learning about the culture and folklore surrounding the making of mooncakes makes them so much more meaningful. How wonderful that you got to join the group of volunteers making mooncakes for an orphanage. I’ll bet that really was a highlight!