Many Chinese millennials are trading salted egg yolk for the likes of “cheesecake ice cream” and “chocolate and apple cookie” this Mid-Autumn Festival as mooncakes become increasingly creative in the midst of a movement favoring homemade and organic foods. Independent restaurants and brick-and-mortar bakeries claim a slice of the cake, but the majority of the brands behind these artisan treats sell exclusively through online channels.
Taobao shops featuring the quirky Mid-Autumn Festival gifts have been gradually building up their customer base over the years, but they are now seeing a surge in popularity that is most likely thanks to the recent boom in social media marketing via apps like WeChat, said Sylvia Liu, marketing director at home décor brand Zamani Collection. These snack and pastry stores range from the rustic, like “The Street Corner Bakery,” which features Fujian-style mooncakes, to the wild, like “Hot Man Flower Cakes,” whose sleek black box is pictured alongside a male chef with toned pecs covered with merely an apron. They ensure products are made fresh daily with quality ingredients.
“Handmade mooncakes are more creative and homey,” Liu said. “I usually buy the really cute ones as gifts and send those. Taobao is perfect for that because you can easily put in the address of your recipient. My family still usually receives a lot from hotels.”
The market for these mooncakes is different than that of luxury brands, who have faced difficulties as President Xi Jinping's anti-graft campaign continues this year. Media companies have been encouraged to out businesses that gift extravagant mooncake boxes for Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on September 27. Instead, artisanal mooncakes are attracting a consumer that was already shopping in supermarkets and turning to mid-tier chains like Häagen-Dazs and Starbucks, with more boutique options that make the gift exchange even more personal.
While smaller, Taobao-based bakeries featuring these offerings are plentiful, there are also well-known brands that have taken on the mooncake in unconventional ways. Shanghai's Strictly Cookies does filled, mooncake-inspired cookies called Mookies that come in inventive flavors like sugar cookie stuffed with red bean, and peanut butter cookie injected with jam. Kinfolk China, the lifestyle magazine known for its emphasis on the importance of family and community, has put its signature ethereal spin on the Moon Festival tradition by teaming up with Beijing-based gelato brand Vivi Dolce to create a collection of creamy flavors, like walnut and black sesame, and elderberry with grapefruit, for 468 RMB (about US$73) for a box of six and the latest “family” themed issue of the magazine. Like Kinfolk often does with its recipes, the brands' WeChat newsletters feature a step-by-step guide as to how these delicacies are prepared.
There are also chefs that are doing what a few years ago would have been unthinkable when it comes to the decadent Mid-Autumn Festival treats: making mooncakes healthy. Wujie, an upscale vegetarian restaurant in Shanghai, offered their own vegetable variation on the mooncake last year. Tribe Organic, a Beijing-based health food restaurant, offers vegan mooncakes with garden-fresh fillings like “glutinous rice and pumpkin” and “green tea and green bean.” They are also low in calories—the average mooncake runs anywhere from 400 to a whopping 1,000 calories depending on the filling.
“We are targeting people who really care what they are eating,” said Tribe's Executive Director Yvonne Yu. “Our cakes don't have any preservatives or trans fat, which are the major concerns for those eating traditional mooncakes.”
Like the dreaded fruit cake, the mooncake has its enemies no matter its form. For them, there is yet another trendy gifting option this season. Soap crafters are popping up everywhere in China's growing independent maker scene, and they are not leaving the mooncake industry untouched—for a premium gift, there is Shanghai's plant-based body care brand, Eco&more, which, in the name of discouraging over-consumption and waste, does natural bar soap in the shape of yuebing, artfully presented in biodegradable packaging that's plastic free.
Traditional mooncakes have by no means disappeared, but the Chinese consumer's search for individualism and growing interest in health and wellness has no doubt taken the industry in a fresh direction. Whether it's one that means fewer accounts of re-gifting boxes thanks to a wealth of interesting variety and more digestible recipes will be known only once Moon Festival has come and gone.