Just before the arrival of fall, I moved back to New York City. Countless friends were appalled at my decision to leave the comforts of coronavirus-free Taiwan for a country in crisis. Although I reassured them that I wasn’t crazy, I too was terrified of returning home. What if the TSA accuses me of bringing the virus into the country? Or what if the family reunion I had imagined turns into a disaster?
My irrational fear was greeted with a simple but heartwarming “welcome home” by an immigration officer at the JFK airport. And when I arrived at my parents’ apartment, they didn’t say much. We couldn’t hug each other right away or catch up over dinner because of social distancing protocols.
But the two fat, round pomelos sitting on the windowsill said more than enough: my parents have been preparing for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Also known as Moon Festival, it marks a special day for family reunions and yet another occasion for a big feast. The occasion is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which, for 2020, falls on October 1.
On this day, the moon is believed to be at its fullest. The roundness of a full moon symbolizes reunions, which may not happen for some families given the ongoing pandemic.
To avoid big crowds, ordering takeout from your local Chinese restaurant is a good way to enjoy a quiet evening of moon gazing. Nearly 60 percent of Chinese restaurants shut down at the height of the pandemic. Because of crippling disinformation and xenophobia, many Chinese restaurants are struggling to survive even as other dining spots are reopening.
By all means, support your favorite Chinese restaurant by ordering a big feast — arrange a Zoom family meal if it adds to your festive spirit.
Here’s a list of dishes and essential foods to make your Moon Festival whole. Order just one of these dishes as part of your meal or get one of everything! We got you, from starter to dessert.
A precious delicacy, crabs are the centerpiece of a Moon Festival feast. In China, the peak season for crabs is around the same time as the traditional holiday, providing a perfect excuse to gobble up the fatty meat. Some people think that it’s best to savor fresh crabs by simply steaming them, but spice lovers can go for chili crabs for that extra kick.
Different regions in China prepare ducks in various ways, with Peking Duck being the most popular one internationally. Slices of crispy roast duck, wrapped in a thin pancake along with onion and fresh cucumber, make for a gastronomic delight. Don’t forget the special hoisin sauce, which tastes both sweet and savory and kicks the duck’s flavor up a notch.
Legend has it that the act of consuming ducks is related to wars and rebellions. Today it’s more likely that ducks are just seen as a festive food, and duck meat is also believed to be the juiciest in the eighth lunar month.
Lotus root, a staple in Chinese cuisine, can be stir-fried or stewed in soups. Its crunchy texture and earthy taste can be elevated with simple seasoning like salt, garlic, ginger, and soy sauce.
The primary season for lotus root is also around the Moon Festival. When you bite into a piece of lotus root, you can feel the tiny silky threads stay attached, almost inseparable, which signifies strong family bonds and interconnectedness.
Like lotus root, taro can be cooked in many ways. It can be mashed and mixed into meat dishes or cooked alongside braised pork. If you’re up for a more fatty dish, you can also try looking for braised pork belly with taro on the menu.
My grandmother also likes to boil it plain and just peel off the skin afterward. Taro is traditionally used as part of the food offerings for deities and ancestors. Its Mandarin pronunciation is homophonic with “excess,” which is a symbol for prosperity and good fortune.
Finish up your meal with a hearty dessert: sweet glutinous rice balls, or Tangyuan. It’s a bitesize chewy dough that comes in a variety of fillings like sugar, black sesame, and ground peanuts.
A homophone for “union,” Tangyuan is a must-have on a holiday that emphasizes togetherness. You can usually find frozen packaged Tangyuan in Chinese supermarkets, but they’re easy to make on your own. Assembling the glutinous rice flour into small balls often creates a fun family bonding experience.
The Moon Festival is never complete without mooncakes. Traditional Cantonese mooncakes are made of extremely dense lotus seed paste, sometimes with a salted egg yolk wrapped inside. Nowadays mooncakes come in various flavors and fillings, like lava custard, mixed nuts, and red bean.
My favorite, though, is crystal mooncake, or snow skin mooncake. It’s served cold with a chewy crust made of glutinous rice flour, like a frozen mochi stuffed with any filling you can imagine. Since snow skin mooncakes have to be stored at a low temperature, they’re harder to find in the United States. Check out your local Cantonese bakery or supermarket, if there’s one in your neighborhood.
Or opt to order online through ShengKee, 85ºC, or HL Pennisula. You obviously won’t get them immediately (and shipping costs might be hefty) but these special desserts are worth enjoying all throughout the month.
Last but not least, if you order from a Cantonese restaurant, it would likely have mango pomelo sago on the dessert menu. This citrusy soup dessert offers a refreshing end to a greasy yet heartwarming meal, and a chance to savor the pomelo season.
Pomelo is at its ripest around the Moon Festival, and its roundness again symbolizes union. In some countries like Thailand and Taiwan, parents often put a funny pomelo hat on their children for good luck, or good laughs.
Pomelo in Chinese also sounds similar to “a son who’s traveling far away from home.” It serves as a reminder for the younger generation to come home on holidays.
While we may not afford to celebrate the Moon Festival with a big reunion this year, we can all share the blessings of the same full moon — no matter where we are.
Daphne K. Lee is a journalist based in Taipei and New York City. She mainly covers human rights and culture in East Asia. Find her on Twitter.