Delicately designed, overwhelmingly dense and often an acquired taste for many in the West, mooncakes are one of the most famous foods found in Chinese communities around the world this time of year.
Every year on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, Chinese and other Asian cultures celebrate the Mid Autumn Festival.
Mooncakes are as important to festivities as turkey is to Thanksgiving and latkes are to Hanukah.
While Thanksgiving celebrations were first recorded in the US as far back as 1607, historians say the Chinese have been celebrating the harvest and worshiping the moon for centuries before Christ.
The Mid Autumn Festival — when the moon is at its fullest and brightest — became an official celebration in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).
The term “mooncake” was first found in 1274 AD in author Wu Zimu’s “Book of Dreams,” and the first cookbook on how to prepare mooncakes was published in 1792.
‘Round like the moon’
While there are many variations of mooncakes, the most famous is the classic Cantonese version: a soft pastry filled with sweet lotus seed paste and savory salted duck egg yolk.
“They are round like the moon,” celebrity cook Maria Cordero tells CNN.
Affectionately known as “Fei Ma” — translated as “Fat Mama” — Cordero was a singer who found a second career as host of a series of home cooking shows that are hugely popular in Hong Kong and among much of the Chinese diaspora.
Cordero has a big family — six children and 13 grandchildren.
She says the mooncake represents the family reuniting and sharing the treat that will put a smile on everyone’s face.
You could — but really shouldn’t eat an entire mooncake on your own.
One small cake contains about 975 calories.
“You cut it into small pieces so the whole family can share,” she says.
“When you cut it you’ll get some pieces that have a lot of egg yolk and some that have little or none at all.
To show respect, you give the piece with the most egg yolk to the eldest and keep the piece with the least egg yolk for yourself.”
It’s all about variety
Like many Westerners, there are Chinese who will admit the lotus paste and salted duck egg dessert just isn’t their thing.
Luckily, there are many other varieties of mooncakes to try.
Those wanting a savorier filling can try the Yunnan-style mooncake that contains honey and ham.
Those with a sweet tooth can sample mooncakes filled with egg custard or ice cream (Haagen-Dazs has several versions).
And those feeling more adventurous — and who are willing to spend the cash — can try the exotic and expensive durian mooncake.
Hong Kong’s Peninsula hotel sells them for $115 a box.