中秋节快乐！ zhōng qiū jié kuài lè ! Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!
A few weeks ago (September 27), we celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival, one of China’s traditional festivals. Its date depends on the lunar calendar, so it moves around in September and early October. Since 2008, it has been a vacation day, usually arranged into a long weekend. This year, there was no extra day off because October 1-7 is also a national holiday. Since there was no extra day for Mid-Autumn, I think it was lower-key for some people this year. In the morning, I didn’t have any particular plans for celebrating, but I was invited by some friends to have dinner together to celebrate in the evening.
Mid-Autumn Festival has a long history with various customs coming and going at various times. You can read more here. Celebrations include themes of harvest, reunion, thanksgiving, moon worship (or observance), fruits, and rabbits. Different areas and families emphasize different things in their celebrations.
One of the main themes of this holiday is reunion. Traditionally, people return home to celebrate with family. The pastor used this theme in his morning sermon (text from Genesis where Joseph’s family reunites in Egypt), talking about the importance of loving relationships and how we are all created to be connected to others. I found a lot of it hard to understand, but my friends said it was a very moving sermon. In the evening, I joined some friends for dinner in a restaurant to celebrate together.
Here’s some photos of some of the food we ate. I don’t think these particular dishes are special to Mid-Autumn Festival. But the restaurant was the style of a particular city in the North East of China that is the home town of a couple of the people. Everyone else in this group comes from the North East, not by planning but by circumstance. They said that since I’m from Michigan, and it is in the north (sort of east) of the U.S., I can count as a “Dong Bei ren” (North East person) too.
“Blueberry Mountain Medicine.” This dish is hard to describe, but it is delicious. The white stuff is not potatoes, but a Chinese vegetable that literally translates to “mountain medicine.” My dictionary says it is called Chinese yam or more formally dioscorea opposita. When it is cooked and mashed it is similar in texture to mashed potatoes (but maybe a little grainy) and a slightly different flavor. Then blueberry sauce is drizzled on top, lending a sweetness to the dish. I had never had this dish in my previous stint in China, but it is pretty common in Beijing these days. If you come visit me, you can try it for yourself!
We also had a fish. Fish in China is, with few exceptions, served whole. This fish was accompanied by cubes of a fried flat bread. They came at the same time, so I wasn’t sure if you were supposed to eat them together or if they were two separate dishes. I waited and then watched Uncle (my friend’s dad) eat one of the the bread pieces unaccompanied, so I tried that, too. Then, Aunt (friend’s mom) explained that you are supposed to dip it in the broth with the fish, or put some of the bread in the broth, let it soak up some broth, and then eat it. It was good in any of those possible combinations.
There is one very traditional Mid-Autumn dish: mooncakes. We ate some of them, too. You can buy factory produced and highly packaged mooncakes in supermarkets for at least a month before the holiday. Starbucks has their own take on them, as does KFC. Mooncakes are sort of like fruit cake, in more ways than one. Sometimes it seems like the important thing about mooncakes is buying and giving them to people and building your guanxi (relationships) network.
Fruitcake is also the only thing I can think of in American culture that tastes anything like mooncakes. Mooncakes have a pastryish outside with a filling. I think possible fillings vary by region but one traditional possibility is a salty duck egg yolk. Others are red bean paste and lotus seed paste, or other fruits or nuts. It is very dense and often sweet. I’m honestly not sure what the filling of this one was—it wasn’t red bean or lotus seed—but it tasted pretty good. After we had opened and eaten these mooncakes, the restaurant brought us two larger mooncakes to celebrate. I had a piece, and I think that they were probably made at the restaurant. The outside was more of a flaky pastry and it had lotus seed filling (with some other dried, candied fruits). It was really good. The next day I read this blog and learned you can make mooncakes. Maybe I’ll try that some time.
Another tradition is to go out and admire the large, full moon. Unfortunately for us, Beijing was covered in clouds during the evening and it was raining when we left the restaurant, so there was no moon observation for us.
For a year that I thought I didn’t have any plans to celebrate, this holiday turned out pretty well.