Monday, September 12, 2011

Mooncakes, mooncakes - Mid-Autumn Festival

Today it's the 15th day of the 8th lunar month on the Chinese calendar, when there is a full moon (yes, look outside and see, you may see more than we can in cloudy Beijing). It is the second most important festival in China after Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and the Chinese have been celebrating this day for moon worship for over 2,000 years. Various events, lantern shows, sacrifical ceremonies, family reunions and gala shows are held, and all accompanied by mooncakes.

Mooncakes used to be a very unhealthy mixture of oily pastry on the outside, a bit like a pork pie, and with a sweet filling of lotus paste, lard and salted duck egg yolk. Actually they were very tasty and very rich.... but full of cholesterol. Various other fillings and outside crusts have developed to suit different tastes and local raw materials, such as red bean paste, mashed dates, and 5 kernels (fruit and nut).......

And now not only are there healthy varieties, and green varieties, but also ice cream ones and chocolate ones, yummy!

However, with inflation reaching China as well, the price has shot up over the years. It really got a bit over the top with expensive fillings such as abalone and sharks fin, and a bottle of wine or other gifts included in the box, which could cost up to 150 US Dollars for a box of 4. And since they are a gift item, packaging gets fancier and fancier.

Employers even bought boxes of mooncakes to show appreciation to their employees. With the property and stock markets cooling, however, people and companies are not so extravagant, and 80% now cost less than 30 US Dollars. I'm not sure how much this large mooncake costs, over 80 cm in diameter and 75 kgs (150 lbs) in weight, and made from 40 kgs of flour (photo from China Daily)!

Of course there are smaller ones, especially if made of gold, or made to look like Chinese chess pieces.

Of course if you are well connected or in a position of power, you don't need to buy any mooncakes, since all sorts of people will be giving you boxes of mooncakes to keep in your good books or to get you to do a favour or to thank you for a favour already done.....yes bribery and corruption packaged in a beautiful box. It is amazing how the traffic on the roads increased in the days leading up to the Festival, as people personally deliver boxes of mooncakes to their 'friends'.

Even the pandas get a special treat at this time of year.

This year I spent the holiday with my mother and since I am not in a position of power, I had to buy mooncakes myself. Actually we ate so many in past years, we don't really like eating too many now. It seems many others also are getting a bit fed up. My friend who works in foreign company said their employer gave them gift vouchers for Wal-Mart this year, which could be exchanged for any goods. And if you didn't want the vouchers, there are touts buying and selling all kinds of surplus vouchers at a discount. Of course for the wealthy and well-connected VIPs, giving (or if you are lucky, receiving) vouchers for the expensive 'hairy crab', a delicacy in season at this time of year, would enable you to get one up on everyone else. It's become a real business for everyone! Thank goodness my mum doesn't like seafood!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A quiet corner in an ancient temple

After walking around the numerous sights in Beijing, it's sometimes necessary to rest your feet and have a cup of coffee or tea (Chinese of course!) in a relaxing and interesting environment. I found one such place recently, located on the site of an an ancient temple in a small hutong right next to the Bell and Drum Towers.

As soon as you enter the courtyard, you are met by a goldfish pond, an old rickshaw and bamboo trees.

The old temple structure is evident outside but unfortunately large parts of the interior have been converted into a market ( 'to serve the people')

As you move in from the coffee shop outside, you enter an inner courtyard which has been converted into a small drinks area and meeting/conference area.

David Cameron even used this room to receive VIPs during his visit to China.

Outside in the hutong, there are still some genuine old courtyard houses.

The hutong is also quite popular with tourists, but they don't stay long!