The Ancient Meaning Behind Hiding A Salted Egg Yolk In Mooncakes

In China, one of the biggest festivals of the year is the Mid-Autumn Festival, a time to celebrate the harvest as well as the full moon and all of its legends. The Mid-Autumn Festival could be compared to Thanksgiving in that it brings extended families together to enjoy a big meal, but instead of turkey and pumpkin pie, the one dish that is always associated with the festival is mooncakes.

Mooncakes may not be familiar to some western palates, but they're a must-have for any Chinese families celebrating the holiday throughout the diaspora. These small stuffed pastries are made with a variety of different fillings – red bean paste and lotus seed paste are common, but some mooncakes also have meat fillings and today's modern mooncakes even include variants made with green tea, chocolate, and ice cream. There's one particular filling, however, that adds an extra layer of symbolic meaning to the dish: salted egg yolks, which are typically found in Cantonese-style mooncakes.

Mooncakes have been known to hide other surprises, as well

Mooncakes are said to symbolize sweetness, family togetherness, and happiness. As legend has it, they're something that the moon goddess Chang'e has been known to bake, and they're often adorned with her image along with the Chinese characters for "harmony" and "longevity." Typically, salted duck eggs are found in those mooncakes made with a lotus bean paste filling. Not only do the flavors complement one another, but the round yellow yolks are meant to represent the full moon itself. Mooncakes with this double filling are one of today's more popular varieties.

A salty, eggy surprise isn't the only thing that mooncakes have hidden over the years. As legend would have it, back in the 14t century when China was ruled by Mongol conquerors, rebels planned an uprising by communicating with messages baked in mooncakes. Thus, they say, were the Mongols overthrown and the Ming Dynasty established. (As with many legends, this may be more fiction than fact, so take it with a salted egg yolk or two.) In more recent times, several bakers have attempted to revive the tradition of mooncake rebellion. In 2014 and again in 2019, Hong Kong anti-government activists baked mooncakes with slogans decrying mainland China's rule. As a result of the latter protest, many mainland retailers refused to carry Hong Kong-made mooncakes. While some bakers may have seen profits drop as a result, for others, the politicization of moon cakes may have been good publicity.