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Gearing up for mooncake madness

Clare Buchanan
Updated: Sep 3,2014 3:36 PM     China Daily

I love Chinese festivals. I not only enjoy the extra holiday time, but I like learning the story and meaning behind each occasion, joining in the celebratory customs and most of all tucking into the traditional treats associated with each event.

Armed with my usual enthusiasm I began reading up about the quickly approaching Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on Sept 8 this year.

The story of the “moon fairy”, which I was taught at primary school in Hong Kong, quickly came back to me and stirred up childhood memories of munching on mooncakes.

Eager to taste the round, flaky pastries filled with egg and lotus-seed paste once again, I asked my Beijing friends where and when I would be able to get my hands on the sweet treats.

The responses I got were not quite what I had expected. Apparently I forgot to remove my rose-tinted glasses when I thought about my mooncake memories.

First of all, unlike most other foods in China, mooncakes are expensive.

In contrast to the huge, steaming bowls of noodles I regularly gorge myself on for dinner for just 18 yuan ($2.93), a basic box of six mooncakes can set you back 100 yuan, with high-end versions closer to 400 yuan.

The majority of my friends, both Chinese and foreigners, told me they didn’t even like the taste of the traditional pastries.

One particular friend told me the hefty price tag was just to convince people they taste good and said “anyone stupid enough to want to eat them deserves to pay”.

Another complained the sweet cakes, which can be laden with up to 1,000 calories, ruined hours of sweaty work in the gym.

Despite the general distain, several friends admitted that, come the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, they would be visiting the bakery to buy mooncakes.

One friend told me whether you love them or hate them, presenting mooncakes to relatives and business associates was an integral part of the festival, showing respect and building relationships.

He explained that in a couple of weeks I wouldn’t be able to escape from the pastries, which would be everywhere, but actually very few would be eaten. He admitted he still had a stash of mooncakes given to him last year festering in his kitchen cupboard.

I suppose Mid-Autumn Festival’s gift-giving culture is not unlike Christmas Day. National protocol says it’s a time for giving and receiving - and then leaving unwanted presents at the back of your wardrobe.

The festival really has turned into a commercial spinner. Even Starbucks and Haagen-Dazs have gotten in on the game, putting their own twist on the treats with new flavors and chocolate and ice cream versions.

In past years mooncake-giving rocketed as businesspeople eager to use cake to beef up their business relations snapped up boxes worth upward of 1,000 yuan.

Authorities were moved to enforce a cake-only rule on all products labeled with “mooncake” in 2012 after expensive packages in sumptuous boxes included more lavish extras, such as expensive tealeaves and alcohol, than actual pastries.

Last year more restrictions were brought in banning government officials from using public money to buy high-end treats.

To avoid a total eclipse of my innocent and idealistic mooncake memories this Mid-Autumn Festival I will also be shunning excess and extravagance.

If a high-end mooncake comes my way I won’t refuse a bite but I plan to track down a cheap and cheerful version of the controversial cake, which I am sure will taste identical to its luxury counterparts.