Moon Cakes

Greetings from Ningbo, China!

Today’s topic:

Breakfast.

I am a creature of habit. Especially when it comes to breakfast.

Violet’s Breakfast Backstory

In the mid-90’s I lived in Manhattan directly across the street from an Italian bakery.
The aroma of that baker’s goods was my siren’s song, not only luring me to the counter every morning but often waking me before dawn to do so.

Super health-minded, I would never eat pastry for breakfast. But add carrot, bran, or dried fruit to your muffin batter and you’ve performed alchemy, magically transforming the empty calories of cake into something I can justify as a nutritious breakfast. Don’t forget the garnish! That innocent sprinkle of pumpkin seeds signals the muffin’s health benefits to would-be healthy breakfasters like me. Behold, the culinary unicorn: “healthy” cake.

“Healthy” muffins from that Italian bakery in NYC were the beginning of a life-long addiction. My family finds my muffin habit irritating, especially when traveling, but the heart wants what it wants. My heart wants a muffin for breakfast, no matter where in the world I happen to be.

In the weeks before my first visit to China, remembering past trips to Malaysia and Singapore, I started mentally prepping myself for Asian breakfast. Sure there would be western options, but any offering resembling a muffin would probably be sweet. All style, no substance. I took comfort in the certain availability of fruit.

Also, Starbucks. Huzza! My global friend Starbucks was certain to offer something resembling my familiar comfort food. I was not afraid.

Welcome to China!

I arrived in Ningbo in late September, shortly after China’s Mid-Autumn Festival. My husband Fred had arrived months earlier had settled in the progressive city of Ningbo, a two-hour drive from Shanghai.

A note of thanks to the Universe: A lovely Starbucks was situated within easy walking distance of Fred’s apartment. Safety net, ensured.

Even though my little eye did spy “healthy” muffins in Starbucks’s display case (a chia seed garnish? Super-healthy!), I decided to turn over a new leaf.

Move over, muffins.

Hello, Moon Cakes!

In celebration of China’s Mid-Autumn Festival (which correlates with the harvest moon), a friend had given Fred a big beautiful box full of sub-boxes, each containing an individually wrapped moon cake. The cakes are a Mid-Autumn Festival tradition. Fred had saved the little boxed cakes for us in his fridge.

Each filled pastry was blanketed in a light, sweet, cake-y exterior, with Chinese calligraphy pressed into the top. Perhaps the characters were a blessing, or a proverb. Maybe they revealed clues as to the contents of the cake. Lazy me, I ate them all without ever attempting to crack the code. Can any of you read the message on the cake? Post a comment!

As long as they lasted, I nibbled at a moon cake every morning for breakfast, testing out the dense hidden filling before diving in. According to extensive research (I asked my Chinese friend Lina), the list of possible fillings for traditional Chinese moon cakes is endless. Three flavors were included in Fred’s moon cake stash:

  • Bean! A mildly sweet paste made of… kidney beans? I am guessing. This was the first cake that I tried, and it was a proper muffin substitute. Beans are healthy, right?
  • Chocolate! Mild, sweet, slightly grainy, tasty enough. Not healthy but I definitely couldn’t let chocolate go to waste. Eaten alongside a bunch of grapes, sure. A healthy-ish way to start the day.
  • Seaweed! (Or… Some Unidentified Extremely Bitter Vegetable!?!) Oooooh. Pass. Sorry, China. I am healthy, but I’m not an animal. 🙂
Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival moon cake with bean filling

Use the comment section to let me know about your go-to travel breakfast, or to share your favorite international breakfast anecdote.

Bon voyage et bon appétit!

Published by violetlemay

writer and illustrator of children's books, eater of sweet potato fries

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