Day 6: A Tale of Two Mooncakes

As any Mainland Chinese will tell you, things are just different in the south.  Before I came to China, I never realized the enormous divide between the polar halves. In fact, one of the only pieces of information I knew before arriving—and was consequently devastated to discover—was that rice is actually only a staple in the south and northern cuisine is more famous for its noodles. As it turns out, food is just the tip of the iceberg. If I were to make large, sweeping, generalizations for a minute, I would say that the stereotypes often associated with the north and south of America are flipped in China. Higher levels in education, standard of living, and overall wealth are attributed to the south, whereas much of the north is seen as farmland full of hicks with funny accents. What's more, all of China's current leadership is from the south and southern cities are well-known for their industry and rapid pace of development.

James attributes this largely to weather—that because the growing season is longer in the south where the weather is warmer, over time a wealthier culture has evolved. As most people know, the Chinese side of my family is originally from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, more commonly known as Canton in the states. While I'm sure to talk more about my identity in other posts, one of the things that struck me at the time I decided to come to China was that I would finally be able to connect with my Chinese half and reconcile the divide that has plagued mixed-bloods since the dawn of colonization. But to make a long story short, living in Taigu feels so far from my preconceived conception of “China” already that I may as well be living in another country. The best way for me to articulate these differences has been through mooncakes.

Northern and southern-style mooncakes.  I'll let you guess which is which.

Mooncakes come in a variety of textures and fillings, but the most iconic are the ones that are soft and thin, filled with either lotus bean paste or preserved duck egg yolk, and are traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival. While southern mooncakes are the sweet globules of chewy, rich goodness most indicative of the mooncakes we have stateside, northern mooncakes are of another breed entirely. Northern mooncakes are wide and flat, and have a thick, flaky crust more suggestive of a puff pastry or a tart shell. Instead of sweet bean paste on the inside, they are stuffed with a filling of salty meat seasoned with spices and Goji berries for sweetness. The taste was initially hard to get used to—more savory than sweet, and better likened to a quiche or a pot pie crust than a dessert.

A box of southern-style mooncakes, gifted to me by what will surely be an A-student this semester.

During the Mid-Autumn Day festivities, I was up to my eyeballs in mooncakes. Most were gifts from students that I was hard-pressed to pass up, including a decadent box of southern-style mooncakes in ornate Chinese packaging. But I was most surprised when Crystal, a Chinese friend of mine, brought over a bag of mooncakes that her grandmother had freshly made. Eating the two kinds side-by-side put things in perspective for me—for all my nay-saying about the north, it was just like the mooncakes themselves, straightforward and understated, whereas the southern one's felt like they had something to hide. Their sweet, tasty core was coated beneath a glossy veneer of delicate lettering and served inside a packaged trim. Though I grew up eating southern mooncakes and still find them to be the best, I can't say that I have been hard put at the experience of trying something new.