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The Mid-Autumn festival, a lunar festival celebrated last week, is one of the four most important Chinese festivals. At this time, mooncakes, bakery products traditionally offered between friends or at family gatherings, are regarded as an indispensable delicacy. However, current consumer concerns such as health consciousness and food safety worries as well as more cosmopolitan taste preferences have been creeping in to challenge their traditional calorie-laden content, recipes and even production location. Some companies are reinventing this festive treat, offering healthier contemporary interpretations and branding including designs in the shape of emoticon-style emoji from the popular Line messaging app to appeal to digital natives. Green-aware consumers, meanwhile, are lamenting the environmental cost of elaborate packaging, with a handful of brands keen to reduce it.
Writing in a business piece in the New York Times, Joyce Lau explains the Chinese ambivalence towards this festival staple: “Like fruitcakes in the West, mooncakes are a popular seasonal gift that everyone loves to hate. The original, centuries-old recipe — ground-up seeds, hard-boiled yolks and a lard crust — has fallen out of favor with younger consumers, who turn up their noses at a cake about the size, and nearly the density, of a hockey puck”.
For 2014, some Hong Kong companies have worked to reinvent mooncakes. In the time leading up to the Mid-Autumn Festival, they have broadcast celebrity-packed ad campaigns promoting a range of non-traditional flavours. Maxim’s, a regional bakery that produces 45 million mooncakes a year, is making low-sugar cakes. The company is also appealing to younger consumers with Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse branding and mooncakes shaped like emoji from popular messaging app Line. Miniature mooncakes allow for easier individual consumption while fat-free and high-fibre versions signify a nod to today’s more health-conscious lifestyle.
Clearly, digital natives and other younger groups as well as some members of the overseas Chinese community are seeking to differentiate themselves from traditionalists. Mandy Chan, a 23-year-old office worker, stopped by a Mrs. Fields Cookies outlet in Hong to pick up a box of chocolate mooncakes she had ordered online. “These are for me and my friends. We’re having a barbecue during the holiday,” she said. “I went to another shop to buy traditional ones for my parents”.
Foreign brands have been increasingly keen to celebrate. Häagen-Dazs were one of the first to create an ice-cream mooncake, with a choice of chocolate crusts. Other ice-cream and restaurant chains soon followed. Currently, Starbucks offers espresso and hazelnut mooncakes and Godiva promotes a chocolate variety. Other Western ingredients incorporated into these seasonal treats include champagne ganache, malt whisky, volcanic-salt caramel and even Black truffles and caviar.
Adaptation seems a key ingredient for consumers globally. When the Peninsula introduced mooncakes at its New York hotel last year, it stuck to its custard-flavoured creation. “We found that people who knew them — mostly from New York’s Chinese community — came to seek them out. A few others bought them out of curiosity,” Mr. Tchen said.
Bakeries from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore have reportedly done particularly well in China because of worries about locally produced food. “We have a strong brand reputation and image. Food safety is a key part of it,” said Martin Lee, the Maxim Group’s general manager of Chinese restaurants and branded products. “Our slogan is ‘100 percent made in Hong Kong’ ”. Mainland China accounts for about 40% of Maxim’s mooncake sales, about double what it was five years ago.
According to Green Power, an environmental organization, Hong Kong alone throws out one million mooncake boxes and more than 1.5 million mooncakes a year. There are embryonic signs of a green consciousness, however. Maxim’s, the above mentioned Hong Kong bakery producing 45 million mooncakes a year, this year created 250,000 ecologically-friendly packages with a material resembling cardboard.