Ok, maybe “everywhere” is an exaggeration.  But I’ve definitely seen a few food porn bloggers post uncaptioned photos of these intricate little cakes alongside dalgona coffees and miscellaneous ube baked goods, and even Animal Crossing has found a way to incorporate them into their latest event.  I didn’t even know what they were called until seeing them in my local Asian bakery.  

Mooncakes are small cakes consisting of a tender, delicate pastry with a dense filling- traditionally lotus seed paste and salted egg yolks, but red bean paste and matcha are also common.  They’re stamped with a pattern mold, usually including the Chinese characters for “longevity” or “harmony,” giving their tops their distinct appearance.  And the reason behind why I’m seeing them now and not during any of my previous trips to that bakery is because of the mooncakes’ importance in the Mid-Autumn Festival.  

In short: the Mid-Autumn Festival is held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar (this year that’s September 21), when the moon is considered to be at its brightest.  The moon’s return to its most-whole state also makes it a symbolic time for families to reunite.  Traditionally, families would make mooncakes together, with the cake’s round shape representing (the moon’s and the family’s) wholeness and togetherness.  And, despite being widely celebrated across East and Southeast Asia, the festival seemed to rarely be publicly celebrated in America until recently, with New York not even having a publicly-organized festival until 2019. 

And, as such, the mooncakes’ wide-spread Internet fame didn’t seem to really kick off until around the same time as last year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, with Youtubers like Tasty and Joshua Weissman putting up videos on how to make them last October, bringing them to the uncultured (ie: white) masses.   

Wanting to see what all the fuss was about, I decided to grab one during that aforementioned trip to the Asian bakery.  I got what appeared to be a matcha one, assuming that that would be the least likely to contain a red bean filling, which, even despite my partially-Japanese heritage, I’ve never really appreciated as a dessert flavor.  It’s just not sweet enough for my dumb American palate, I guess. 


You know what, though? This is probably the best red bean-filled thing I’ve ever had.  I don’t know how to explain it, it’s not like it’s any sweeter or less bean-y than other fillings I’ve had.  Maybe it’s the tender, delicate pastry that adds a layer of decadence.  Maybe it’s those mystery nuts and seeds (which, based on my research, makes this a sort of hybrid with “5 Kernels” mixed nut style mooncakes) that breaks up the monotony and adds a bit of texture.  My only regret is eating the whole thing in one sitting.  Apparently, even small ones like these are usually cut into wedges and shared, and eating a whole one by myself did leave me feeling a little groggy (and also spits in the face of the symbolism of sharing it with your family).

So why is this ancient tradition starting to become a massive sensation among non-Asian foodies?  On one hand, it’s easy to chalk it up to the intricate designs stamped on the top of these cute little cakes being very Instagrammable or the ever-present fetishization of Asian cultures.  And while I’m sure there are definitely shades of those, I do have a couple of angles to explore that are a little more optimistic.

Among so many other things, the pandemic resulted in a.) people not being able to travel to be with family, and b.) a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes.  Again, a key tenant of most Mid-Autumn Festivals is getting together with friends and family, so, as travel restrictions prevent relatives from being together physically, social media posts (including ones with mooncakes) can help create a sense of togetherness.  And as anti-Asian racism has increased, many Asian American food writers and content creators have made pushes towards being more vocal about educating people about their heritage and not just being used as an “exotic” prop.    

Do the aforementioned uncredited, uncaptioned pictures of them that introduced me to the concept of mooncakes in the first place sort of discredit those theories? Maybe so.  The line between appreciation and appropriation can be a difficult one to sort out, especially when talking about a culture you yourself are not part of. But I think as long as you’re buying from an Asian bakery and not, say, Starbucks, you’re probably in the clear.

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