Cost: 119 yen
Found At: 7-11
During that first autumn in China, the one thing that bothered me more than anything else was the sheer and shocking lack of sugar in my diet. Everything was too salty, and nothing was sweet enough. For that first month, I was lethargic and irritable, unaware that I was going through sugar withdrawals and desperate to find anything that would quench my craving for sweet. I remember buying ice-cream from the school cafeteria, only to discover that it was an ice-cream-like substance made from beans and – worst of all- very conservatively sweetened. One day, in absolute desperation, I bought a soda – only to discover that it lacked the corn syrup sweetness I was used to. No meal ever felt quite finished. No day ever felt fully closed. No tea time was every really complete. I felt absolutely unmoored from my culture in a land with such unsweetened food.
And then came the Mid-autumn festival, and with it the moon cakes. These are thin, round, heavy pastries sometimes filled with sweet red bean, sometimes filled with sweet lotus seed paste, and sometimes filled with seeds and nuts in maltose syrup. They look like little golden hockey pucks and are decorated with rabbits or lotus flowers or stylized characters. Just like Halloween candy in the US, the moon cakes appear in stores long before the actual autumn festival, in large variety packs, decorative gift boxes, or individually packaged cakes that fit into a pocket. They are usually, I was told, given as gifts and are meant to be eaten together with friends and family – cut into wedges and enjoyed with tea – though, of course, every family does things a little differently.
All of this I have learned in the months and years after I had left China, but in those first few months, when I didn’t understand anything or know anyone, the only thing I really knew was that for the first time since I arrived, I had found something that I could call a dessert. I had found that elusive sweetness that I craved so desperately. A coworker had given me a box set almost as soon as I had arrived, and being unsure how to use the supermarket, I budgeted the sweet cakes with all the care and attention I should put into my actual budgeting – eating them only when I absolutely could not take it anymore. By the time I had eaten the whole box, I had finally learned how to order food and buy groceries. But by then it was too late. The festival was over, and the moon cakes were gone.
These days I am at no loss for sweet things. In fact, it’s getting to the point where I need to start cutting sweetness out of my diet instead of adding it in. But as the leaves are beginning to turn, and I am feeling particularly nostalgic for my first autumn in Asia, I feel compelled, now and then, to pick up a Japanese moon cake from the convenience store and slowly enjoy to over a cup of Chinese tea. It’s not the same, but it’s a little taste of the past and a little reminder of the sweet things in life.