I moved back to New York City just before the arrival of fall. Countless friends have been appalled by my decision to leave the comforts of coronavirus-free Taiwan to a country in crisis. Although I assured them that I was not crazy, I was also afraid to return home. What if the TSA accuses me of bringing the virus into the country? Or what if the family reunion I had imagined turned into a disaster?
My irrational fear was greeted by an immigration officer at JFK airport with a simple but heartwarming “welcome home”. And when I got to my parents’ apartment, they didn’t say much. We couldn̵
But the two fat, round grapefruits on the windowsill said more than enough: My parents have prepared for the mid-autumn festival. Also known as the Moon Festival, it is a special day for family gatherings and another occasion for a big festival. The occasion is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which for 2020 falls on October 1st.
On this day it is believed that the moon is at its fullest. The roundness of a full moon symbolizes reunions that some families may not experience given the ongoing pandemic.
To avoid large crowds, ordering a snack at your local Chinese restaurant is a great way to enjoy a quiet evening with a moon view. Almost 60 percent of Chinese restaurants closed at the height of the pandemic. Because of the crippling disinformation and xenophobia, many Chinese restaurants are struggling to survive even if other restaurants are reopened.
Be sure to support your favorite Chinese restaurant by ordering a grand feast – arrange a family dinner from Zoom if it adds to your festive spirit.
Here is a list of dishes and essential foods to make your Mid-Autumn Festival a whole. Order just one of these dishes as part of your meal or get one of all! We have you, from starters to desserts.
Crabs are a precious delicacy and the heart of a moon festival. In China, the peak crab season is around the same time as the traditional holiday, which is a perfect excuse to devour the fatty meat. Some people think that it’s best to enjoy fresh crabs by simply steaming them, but spice lovers can go for that extra kick for chili crabs.
Different regions in China prepare ducks in different ways, with Peking duck being the most popular internationally. Crispy roast duck slices, wrapped in a thin pancake with onions and fresh cucumber, make for a gastronomic delight. Don’t forget the special hoisin sauce that tastes both sweet and savory and enhances the taste of the duck even more.
Legend has it that the consumption of ducks is related to wars and riots. Today it is more likely that ducks are considered just a festive meal, and duck meat is also considered the juiciest in the eighth lunar month.
The lotus root, a staple of Chinese cuisine, can be fried or steamed in soups. Its crispy texture and earthy taste can be enhanced with simple seasonings like salt, garlic, ginger, and soy sauce.
The main season for lotus roots is also around the moon festival. If you bite into a piece of lotus root, you can feel the tiny silky threads remain almost inextricably linked, indicating strong family ties and networking.
Like the lotus root, taro can be cooked in many ways. It can be pureed and mixed with meat dishes or cooked alongside braised pork. If you’re in the mood for a more fatty dish, you can also look for braised pork belly with taro on the menu.
My grandmother also likes to just cook it and then just peel the skin off afterwards. Taro is traditionally used as part of the food offering for deities and ancestors. The pronunciation in Mandarin is homophonic with “excess”, which is a symbol of wealth and happiness.
End your meal with a hearty dessert: sweet sticky rice balls or tangyuan. It’s a bite-sized chewy dough that comes in a variety of fillings like sugar, black sesame seeds, and ground peanuts.
Tangyuan is a homophone for “Union” and a must on a holiday where togetherness is paramount. You can usually find frozen packaged Tangyuan in Chinese supermarkets, but they are easy to make yourself. Putting the sticky rice flour together into small balls often creates a fun family bond experience.
The moon festival is never complete without moon cake. Traditional Cantonese moon cakes are made from extremely dense lotus seed paste, sometimes with a salted egg yolk wrapped in it. These days mooncakes come in a variety of flavors and fillings such as lava pudding, mixed nuts, and red beans.
However, my favorite is crystal moon cake or snow skin moon cake. It’s served cold with a chewy crust of glutinous rice flour, like a frozen mochi that’s filled with every imaginable filling. Because snow-skinned moon cakes must be stored at a low temperature, they are harder to find in the United States. Check out your local Cantonese bakery or supermarket if there’s one near you.
Or order online via ShengKee, 85 ° C or HL Pennisula. You won’t get them right away, of course (and shipping costs can be high), but these special desserts are worth enjoying all month long.
If you order at a Cantonese restaurant, Mango Pomelo Sago is likely on the dessert menu. This citrus soup dessert provides a refreshing finish to a fatty, but heartwarming meal and an opportunity to enjoy the grapefruit season.
Grapefruit is most ripe around the Moon Festival and its roundness symbolizes unity again. In some countries like Thailand and Taiwan, parents often put funny grapefruit hats on their children to be lucky or to have a good laugh.
Grapefruit in Chinese also sounds similar to “a son who is far from home”. It serves as a reminder for the younger generation to come home for the holidays.
While we may not be able to afford to celebrate the Moon Festival with a grand 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 is mainly concerned with human rights and culture in East Asia. Find her on Twitter.