In China, a Moon Cake Makeover

Visitors pass by massive moon lanterns at Beijing's Lugou Bridge, which was decorated last week in preparation for the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Visitors pass by massive moon lanterns at Beijing's Lugou Bridge, which was decorated last week in preparation for the Mid-Autumn Festival. (Photos By China Photos Via Getty Images)
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

BEIJING, Sept. 25 -- Workers strung red lanterns and spruced up parks across the city for Tuesday night's celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival, which for centuries has marked the end of harvest and the time in the lunar calendar when the moon is at its brightest.

It is a time for family reunions, for moon-gazing and especially for moon cakes, the round pastries traditionally filled with red bean or lotus seed paste and often containing an egg yolk to represent the moon.

But just off Peace Avenue in a neighborhood cluttered with Western chain stores, employees at an ice cream shop were busy packaging hundreds of red boxes of moon cakes filled with green tea ice cream and Belgian chocolate ice cream. In the fancy shops of upscale hotels and the stores of the Beijing pastry chain Wei Duo Mei, moon cakes filled with abalone, dried scallops, pineapple, New Zealand cheese and Japanese coffee were flying off the shelves, at prices of up to $39 for a box of eight.

As millions of Chinese buy and exchange moon cakes this week as part of a business networking ritual, companies are inventing a growing number of nontraditional pastries to try to keep young people interested in the traditional holiday.

"Eating moon cakes is just a tradition for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Actually I don't like to eat them at all. They're too oily," said Wang Jing, a young office worker who was picking up moon cakes at Haagen-Daz with her boyfriend on Monday afternoon. "We eat these moon cakes instead because they're just like eating ice cream."

Jiang Li, a 25-year-old software engineer with IBM, said she was sick of the traditional moon cakes she ate each year when she was growing up. "The new-style moon cakes, like these with ice cream, are good at creating a romantic feeling, so it's fitting for the appetite of young people," Jiang said. "Our parents might be thrifty, but young people are willing to spend money on this, because it gives us the feeling we want."

Many Chinese get moon cakes from their employers and quietly give them to their dog walkers, nannies and neighbors as a way of currying favor or showing respect. Those who have to impress clients buy elaborately wrapped boxes of moon cakes, the more expensive the better.

"It's big business for all the hotels. It has to do with image. Most of our customers are buying them for clients, so it's all about the name," said Finella Siambun, a spokeswoman for the Ritz-Carlton Beijing, Financial Street, which was sold out of all of its moon cakes, including those filled with blueberries, chestnut and corn, raspberries and wine, and simmered bird's nest, a pricey delicacy among Chinese gourmands.

Two years ago, Wei Duo Mei, the Beijing pastry chain, didn't make any Western-style moon cakes. Last year the chain began experimenting with fruit and cheese fillings, and this year a third of its cakes are nontraditional.

"We target young and trendy customers, white-collar workers, people from high-tech companies or private English schools. They need something new and special. If we give them the same thing every year, they'll be bored," said Li Changmao, manager of the company's corporate planning department. The store produced 10,000 gift boxes of six to eight moon cakes each. By last Friday, all were gone.

"Government departments still prefer traditional moon cakes, with fillings like beef, lian rong [a paste made from lotus seed], wu ren [made from almond, sesame, walnut, peanut and sunflower seed] or red bean," Li said.

About 250,000 tons of moon cakes were produced in China last year, bringing in about $1.42 billion, according to the state-run China Daily newspaper.

This year, Li hired a French chef to teach the staff how to make the outer skin of the pastry more crispy.

"The French-style moon cakes are experimental. We're targeting the Olympics next year -- maybe Westerners will prefer to buy the traditional cakes, but I think many of their Chinese friends will buy the trendier styles."

Researcher Li Jie contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company