Today, 24 September 2018 (or the 15th day of the 8th month on the lunar calendar), many ethnic Chinese and friends around the world celebrate the mid-autumn festival, with children walking about with beautiful lanterns under the silvery full moon at its brightest amidst a feast of mooncakes washed down with cups of tea (or nowadays, glasses of wine).
Mooncakes have evolved over time to keep up with the increasingly sophisticated palates of young Chinese people. What used to be a handful of traditional flavours made by different dialect groups has exploded into amazing and exotic flavours.
Every year, bakeries, restaurants and hotel chains pit their culinary genius and creativity against one another in a one-upmanship introducing new flavours even as they defend their signature mainstay flavours. A stroll down Chinatown or some of the malls during the 1 to 2 month(s) leading up to the mid-autumn festival is quite an overwhelming affair – after all how many mooncakes can you really consume? That was definitely my experience this year as I took my mom shopping for mooncakes at the mid-autumn fair a few weeks ago at Ngee Ann City.
I love my mooncakes (trust me! I have a mean sweet tooth that once saw me putting on 4 kg in a month because of mooncakes). That has not changed (the love for mooncakes that is, and not the weight!). Perhaps my shopping moratorium over the past few months has quenched the thirst of consumption within me and I did not really feel the need to indulge, so I bought no mooncakes for myself at the fair and treated my mom to the boxes she wanted to give away as gifts to relatives and for her own consumption.
Eventually, I did buy a box of mooncakes for my kids and myself to enjoy (my sweet tooth was tingling). After all, I still wanted to observe a festival and tradition near and dear to my heart, shopping moratorium notwithstanding. And so I bought a simple box of mooncakes from an old traditional bakery. And it tasted great, after all, it has been around since I was a little kid and is holding its own against all the new-fangled flavours from the competition which must say something about how good it tasted. And the best part? The feeling that I was not overindulging at the expense of the earth was better than the mooncake itself.
For in recent times, the gluttony and overconsumption during the festival has extended beyond the mooncakes to the gift boxes that they come packaged in. What used to be just a simple paper box (like the one that my mooncakes came in) has become quite something to behold: beautifully designed paper boxes wrapped in brocade-like cloth (and even PVC leather!) or heavily lacquered come with tassels or metal brooches, some with drawers that have tiny ornate handles. Or beautifully embellished or printed tin boxes. Millions of these boxes are printed and produced with the sole purpose of making the gift of mooncakes to friends and family and business contacts more presentable. And I reckon, these boxes cost more than the mooncakes themselves.
For sure, many of these boxes are really pretty and hardy, so you could reuse them. I have certainly repurposed a few of these to hold my jewelry and hair accessories in the past. But then again, how many jewelry boxes would one need? In the end, after the mooncakes are consumed, many of these boxes are thrown away and because they cannot be easily recycled, would either be occupying landfills or be burnt in the trash incinerator.
So, as much as I love the newer-fangled flavours like champagne truffle and rum and raisin mooncakes, I will no longer buy them in future mid-autumns unless the packaging returns to something much more sustainable. Sadly, I doubt that will ever happen as the market will continue to dance to the whims and demands of the customers.While they may think they are making a decision to buy mooncakes, they are really buying the boxes. How else could one justify that a fancy box of mooncakes could cost twice as much as a traditional box of mooncakes when both contain the same kind of mooncakes.