Like other ancient symbolic foods, there are as many legends surrounding the moon cake as there are types of moon cakes. In one tale, moon cakes originated in ancient times to pay hommage to the moon. According to other sources, the moon cake was invented as a way to honor the Moon Goddess Chang-Er. In another story moon cakes, at the time a food of the Hu ethnic minority, were popularized after Tang Dynasty emperor Tang Taizong used the cakes to celebrate a sizable military victory.
In what is perhaps the most famous tale, it is said that during the end of the Mongolian ruled Yuan Era Han Chinese rebel Chu Yuan-chang spread a secret message baked in moon cakes giving the instructions "revolt on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month". On the night of the brightest moon these revolutionary fighters successfully attacked and overthrew the Mongolian army.
Although all Chinese celebrate the Autumn Moon Festival with moon cakes, the look and flavor of the cakes vary from region to region. Outside China in countries such as Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, and Vietnam there exist yet more variations. Within China there are five main moon cake producing regions: Beijing, Tianjin, Suzhou, Chaozhou, and Guangzhou. Beijing and Tianjin moon cakes typically have white flaky or foamy crusts and made with a vegetable filling and a liberal use of oil. Suzhou moon cakes, developed over a thousand years ago, are small cakes with strong oily and sweet flavors, and are famous for their flaky exterior. Suzhou's savory cakes are usually filled with minced pork and served hot. Chaozhou moon cakes are round with a layered flaky crust. The Guangzhou version, which is the type Westerners are most familiar with, are round or square cakes with soft golden brown exteriors commonly filled with sweet lotus paste and a salted duck egg (or two). The cake is customarily cut into quarters, thus causing the yolk to resemble a full moon.
Since the 1980s, variations such as snow skin and jelly moon cakes have appeared alongside their traditional counterparts. Some manufacturers have sought to modernize the moon cake even further, producing such novelties as ice cream, chocolate, and cartoon character (e.g. Winnie the Pooh and Hello Kitty) shaped cakes. Some bakers stick with a traditional exterior but fill the cakes with such things as custard, tropical fruits, and green tea. A few stores now carry high-end moon cakes filled with such luxuries as foie gras, abalone, and bird's nest. Although new types of moon cakes appear every year, one thing remains unchanged: no matter what the variation, the Autumn Moon Festival cannot be properly celebrated without the presence of our beloved moon cakes.
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