Everybody has their special display table out with red boxes of moon cake. Could somebody tell me what this is about? How long are these special red boxes for sale?
Haha, you haven't been in China a long time huh? :)
Moon cakes are consumed in heaps close to the mid-autumn festival. This year it's a bit later than last year, October 3. Those little red boxes you are talking about will be gone a few days later. It's all about the packaging since moon cakes, especially the sweet ham versions, taste like crap.
the classic mooncake is a sweet pastry filled with lotus seed paste and preserved duck egg yolk. the yolk (or yolks) sit inside the lotus paste, and the whole lot is wrapped up in the pastry, which is usually glazed.
there are many deviations from the classic recipe, with all sorts of fillings. i think the ham one is especially popular in Yunnan due to Xuanwei/Yunnan ham being highly regarded. it's worth sampling a few to get the idea. you will almost certainly hit a few duds :)
there's plenty of folklore attached to mooncakes, the most obvious link being that the round mooncake symbolises the moon. the mooncake festival (aka mid autumn festival) is a full moon. dedicated moonwatchers say the moon actually seems bigger the day after the full moon.
First, the variety of moon cakes is highly regional. Guangdong/Cantonese moon cakes are the most prevalent overseas, but you can get these in Kunming as well. They often quite 'heavy' and rich with thick bean paste and an egg yolk in the center.
Here in Kunming the dominant variety is a kind of sweet/candied ham (火腿月饼) inside a flakey crust. Roughly three to four inches across, moon cakes are typically individually wrapped in a decorative wrapping. I always find the wrappers attractive with traditional patterns on a type of wax paper (because truth be told they are kind of oily).
Like all things there will be some flavors that suit your palate more than others so my advice would be to simply try several different varieties. Extremely popular and almost only found in Kunming variety is a sesame style (麻仁月饼) but has an almost peppery taste to it. A more widely available style is made from bean paste and walnuts called shaxi (西沙月饼).
Most Kunmingers have their favorite outlet to get their mooncakes that they swear are the best. One of the popular places for the Yunnan ham variety is the Economic Trade Hotel ［经贸宾馆］(just off of Qingnian Lu near the hospital) －much higher quality ham without the big greasy/grizzly bits.
The background to the holiday is a bit murky and there are numerous tales that one can hear if you press your Chinese friends. The holiday itself dates back several thousand years, but mooncakes (at least apocryphally) date to the Yuan dynasty when it is said a rebel Chinese general used the cakes to spread the attack plan against the Mongol invaders. Today it is almost completely a family holiday where one is expected to return home if you are able and pass the evening with one's close relatives. Since one is suppose to also go out an view the moon there are all sorts of alternative ways to pass the evening either romantically or with alcohol and friends.