This time last year, I was in Singapore, learning how to make mooncakes, learning about my family.
The lessons in the kitchen were both informative and intense. Along with their braised duck recipes, the women in my family imparted their tales, their advice. I won't go into detail — you'll just have to buy the book when it comes out in February.
But I found myself thinking about my aunties and their life lessons as the Mid-Autumn Festival (which falls today) approached and mooncakes began appearing in Chinatown stores. The celebration, also known as the Mooncake festival, marks the day that the moon is supposedly the brightest during the year. In Singapore, we also call it the lantern festival because it's the night that children wielding lanterns in the shape of dragons, dogs, even Hello Kitty, take to parks and playgrounds to create a river of bobbing lights.
In China, the celebration also commemorates the 14th Century rebellion against the reigning Mongols. Members of the resistance spread word about their planned uprising via notes tucked into cakes, which they smuggled to sympathizers.
While I learned to make traditional mooncakes in Singapore — filled with lotus seed paste and salted egg yolks — my aunties also taught me a version that's indigenous to my Chinese ethnic group, the Teochews. Filled with sweet mashed yam and wrapped in a decorative rippled fried dough, these "mooncakes" were simpler, less cloying — and just lovely with a hot cup of Oolong.
There are none of these in my Brooklyn home this year, alas — just a box of modern (and currently fashionable) mooncakes by Tung Lok stuffed with strawberry, kumquat and pineapple fillings that my dear cousin Valerie carefully brought over from Singapore recently. (After getting over my shock at this blatant flouting of tradition, I grew to rather like them. They're actually not bad.)
Mooncakes are mooncakes, after all. And all the better if they come from your family.