Celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival with Mooncakes and Lanterns

Everything you need to know about mooncakes and where to celebrate in San Diego

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The Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival is a huge celebration in Hong Kong, China, Singapore and other countries in Asia that occurs on the 15th day of the 8th month in the lunisolar calendar—when the moon is thought to be at its fullest.

For nearly 3000 years, families have been gathering together during this time to pay homage to the moon, a symbol of peace and prosperity. In 2017, Mid-Autumn Festival falls on Wednesday, October 4.

I’ll tell you about Mid-Autumn customs including all things mooncake and list the one San Diego Moon Festival event that I know of.

Lanterns Play a Key Role in Mid-Autumn Festival

Ornate, colorful lanterns are hung in storefronts and homes with huge displays gracing public spaces. Lanterns play off the need for light as Mid-Autumn Festival events occur in the evening in order to admire the moon fully. Conveniently, because celebrations run late into the night, the day after Mid-Autumn Festival is a public holiday in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia.

If you are ever in Hong Kong (our former home), you must visit the lanterns in Victoria Park and see the fire dragon dance. The dragon is 67 meters long and lit up by 70,000 incense sticks. Here, the Mid-Autumn Festival is the second largest holiday behind Chinese New Year.

See also: How to Make Easy Chinese Lanterns

Gifting Mooncakes

Perhaps the most notable Mid-Autumn Festival tradition is the exchange of mooncakes, a seasonal delicacy that is now offered in a variety of sizes and flavors. My husband brought these treasures home daily—gifts from appreciative clients—in the week or two prior to the festival.

Some savory mooncakes are certainly an acquired taste, however, their evolution beyond the standard salted duck egg interior has made them more palatable to a mainstream audience.

Hotels, restaurants and bakeries start taking mooncake orders well in advance of the festival. Deciding where and what to order is kind of a big deal because gifting mooncakes conveys how you feel about someone and you want to get it right!

Traditional Mooncakes

What you need to know about Mid-Autumn Festival (also called Moon Festival) including how to eat a mooncake.

A traditional mooncake has a salted egg yolk in the center that is surrounded by a paste filling. The filling and yolk are encased together by a thin pastry crust stamped with the Chinese characters for longevity or harmony. The paste filling is typically lotus seed, jujube, sweet bean or a nut blend.

As you might imagine, each region of China has a slightly different variation of mooncake that is usually seen in the crust. However, Cantonese-style mooncakes have the golden crust usually surrounding lotus paste or melon seed paste and up to four (it’s usually one) salted egg yolks that represent the four phases of the moon.

Snowy Mooncakes

Maybe it’s because I associate cake with sweet but snowy mooncakes are my favorite. They have a chewy, glutinous rice crust—similar to some Japanese manju—that is also stamped with auspicious Chinese characters. The filling inside is usually sweet (chocolate, ice cream or similar) and void of a salted egg yolk. They are smaller, unbaked and more colorful than traditional mooncakes.

Sample Modern Mooncake Flavors

mid autumn festival mooncakes

Even my then daughter dug into mooncakes that we sampled recently at Four Seasons Hotel Singapore. From left to right:

  • Pandan and white lotus seed paste with melon seed (our favorite)
  • Cassia flower with oolong tea and melon seed
  • Macadamia nut chocolate
  • Raspberry rum and chocolate paste

The two smaller mooncakes on the right are snowy mooncakes.

How to Eat a Mooncake

The most traditional way to eat a mooncake is an auspicious one. Slice it into eight pieces (eight is an incredibly lucky number in Chinese culture) and share it with loved ones. Yes, I realize that I forgot to do this in the above photo.

Regardless of appetite, it is difficult to eat an entire mooncake. Traditional mooncakes are about the size of a fist and incredibly rich. A cup of jasmine tea helps digest them.

Snowy mooncakes are also sharable but since they’re tinier… whether you share is up to you!

Where to Find Mooncakes

In Asia, luxury hotels, bakeries and restaurants offer beautifully-packaged mooncakes for pre-order prior to the festival. I’ve seen people stress out about the packaging as much as the quality of the mooncake itself. However, mooncakes are sold in larger bakeries year-round.

In the United States, your best bet is a Chinese bakery or grocery store. In San Diego, try Ranch 99 or Huy Ky Bakery in City Heights. However, Amazon sometimes sells Kee Wah mooncakes that you can have delivered via Prime!

Should you want to show a sign of appreciation or bring a hostess gift to someone of Chinese heritage, mooncakes or lanterns are great ideas during this time of year. Which type of mooncake you choose, depends on who it is. For elders and friends born in China, a traditional mooncake may be in order. Kids and those a generation or two removed may prefer snowy mooncakes.

Fun Moon Festival Products

Those of us living outside of Asia may turn to Amazon to gear up for Moon Festival.

I Love Mooncake T-Shirt


I can’t tell you how much I love this.

Buy on Amazon

DIY Mooncakes

It never occurred to me that I could actually make mooncakes at home. I intend to give this highly rated mooncake press a go.

Buy on Amazon

Order Kee Wah Golden Lotus Seed Mooncakes

I stopped into Kee Wah multiple times per week when living in Hong Kong for various snacks. These mooncakes are like comfort food for some and their original flavor.

Check to see if they are in-stock on Amazon.

2017 San Diego Moon Festival (Mid-Autumn Festival) Events

Moon Festival at Balboa Park

Held at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, the Moon Festival at Balboa Park is a free, family-friendly event. This year’s performances feature Xiamen University’s Art and Performance group, Confucius Classroom student six arts performances, Korean-American Association drums and dance performances, lion and dragon dances and more. The show starts at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, September 23. For more details see the event’s Facebook page.

(Interested in more Chinese culture? Learn more about Chinese New Year.)

Lantern and vertical mooncake photo are courtesy of Discover Hong Kong.

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3 Comments

  1. Monica
    October 4, 2017 at 12:16 pm — Reply

    Thanks for the great article. Any idea where to buy lanterns for the Mid Autumn Festival in San Diego?

    • October 5, 2017 at 1:18 pm — Reply

      I am really not sure! Sometimes even Party City has plain red lanterns.

  2. September 5, 2014 at 2:28 pm — Reply

    I want to try a mooncake! That old traditional mold / stamp is awesome.

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