HONG KONG (AdAgeChina.com) -- It's mooncake season in Asia, and that's big business for retailers, bakeries and hotels that churn out holiday pastries to celebrate the fall harvest, reaping tens of millions of dollars in revenue.
Mooncakes have become an indispensable delicacy during the weeks leading up to Mid-Autumn Festival, a lunar holiday that starts this year on Sept. 22.
Luxury hotel chains like the Mandarin Oriental, St. Regis and Hilton have become experts at catering to the tastes and desires of affluent Chinese, for whom mooncake season is all about gift-giving and status. For China's jet-setting crowd, nothing sends good wishes for a parent, client or colleague's prosperity like handing over a box of exquisitely-packaged white chocolate mooncakes with coconut ganache and gula melaka from the Mandarin Oriental or snow-skin mooncakes with Champagne truffle and ganache from the Raffles Hotel.
Shangri-la's mooncake sales top $35 million
The Rolls Royce of Asia's mooncake brands is the Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts chain, which has turned mooncakes into a valuable marketing tool and a sweet source of revenue. The hotel chain's mooncake sales now top $35 million annually. Much of that mooncake revenue comes from the hotel's properties in Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, as well as Hong Kong and China.
The Shangri-La, owned by Malaysian-Chinese businessman Robert Kwok, has cornered the mooncake market through its canny understanding of Chinese culture and a solid distribution network. Shangri-La has over 30 properties in Greater China, covering just about every first and second-tier city in the mainland. Starting in August, the lobbies of hotels from Beihai to Zhongshan are filled with locals placing orders for boxes of mooncakes.
The chain's flagship Island Shangri-La hotel in Hong Kong has sold abound 11,000 boxes of mooncakes since mid-July, according to a company spokeswoman. Mooncakes from that hotel's Michelin-starred Summer Palace start at $34.50 for a four-pack. Gift hampers with eight mooncakes plus Chinese tea, home-made X.O. sauce, pistachios, honey, bamboo pith, chocolates and a bottle of Champagne cost $256.
The hotel puts enormous energy into its mooncake business. Each hotel decides which flavors it will offer based on local taste preferences. In late August, the hotel's Changchun property in Northeast China's Jilin Province attracted visitors from across China and overseas with a mooncake tasting event.
New flavors have helped tradition flourish
The origin of mooncakes dates back centuries when early Chinese offered sacrifices to the sun in spring and the moon in autumn. The holiday has been officially celebrated since the Song Dynasty in 420, and folk stories tell of Ming revolutionaries who used mooncakes to carry secret messages in their bid to overthrow Mongolian rulers during the Yuan dynasty.
Traditional mooncakes are imprinted with the Chinese characters for "longevity" or "harmony" and stuffed with red lotus seed paste, red bean paste or black sesame paste alongside a salted egg yolk that symbolizes the full moon.
A tin of basic mooncakes only costs a few dollars, but rising disposable income inside China -- and the prosperity of ethnic Chinese in the rest of Asia -- are inspiring bakers to cater to the culinary curiosity of modern consumers with creative ingredients.
Gourmet mooncakes can cost hundreds of dollars for limited-edition packages flavored with coconuts, dried scallops, goose liver, red wine, beef with scallions, seaweed, truffles with bacon, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, marshmallows, bird's nest, ginger and many other foods.
New flavors have helped the mooncake tradition flourish as China's society grapples with the rapid urbanization of its culture. Mooncakes are usually bought as gifts to give friends, family and business associates. Most consumers today find the old-fashioned kind, which are chewy and dense, about as desirable as the unwanted fruitcake many Americans exhange at Christmas. Inventive flavors and eye-catching packaging have helped the treats remain fashionable in a culture that seems to change by the hour.
Western marketers are now tapping into the popularity of mooncakes too. Starbucks sells mooncakes stamped with its mermaid logo and stuffed with coffee, green tea and berries.
Haagen-Dazs produces mooncakes made of macadamia nut, chocolate and cookies & cream ice cream with a mango sorbet "yolk," and Hong Kong's Mira Hotel teamed up with Lindt to produce a line of chocolate mooncakes in four flavors, sour, sweet, bitter and spicy.