These wobbly yellow jewel delights have pleased Portuguese, English, Macaunese, and Hong Kongnese sweet cravings for as many as centuries and as little as decades. Since introduced, egg tarts have become everyone’s favorites. These egg tarts today are now an integral part of Hong Kong’s dim sum. With so many different versions of the egg tart, we started to wonder, what exactly is an egg tart?
Egg Tart: A Possible History
Before we went on our Philadelphia egg tart journey (courtesy of Yelp’s “top egg tart” list), we searched up the history of egg tarts. We learned that egg tarts’ history is as complicated as its’ recipe. One of the theories is that egg tarts originated from the English tart with custard filling, a British classic. People believe that the British colonization in the Guangdong province influenced the Cantonese cuisine. The second and popular theory is that the egg tart is a Cantonese take of Pastel de Nata. This Portuguese favorite is found all over Portugal and even Europe.
From 1557 to 1999, Macau had Portuguese influence. Pastel de Nata is a traditional Portuguese custard pastry. The custard is caramelized to form a creme brulee topping. It was created over 200 years ago by Catholic Sisters at Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon. The first shop outside of the convent to make this pastry is Casa Pasteis de Belem. Today, this pastry shop continues to specialize in Pastel de Nata and has spread all over Europe creating an international and well-recognized chain there.
Evolving from Pastel de Nata and the English tart with custard filling, the traditional Cantonese egg tart was formed. Hand held and able to be finished with three or four bites, these pastries are a cha chaan teng and dim sum favorite. In 1940’s, egg tarts arrived in Hong Kong from Macau and became popular because of cha chaan teng. Cha chaan teng are
Hong Kong fast food teashops that serve Western style Hong Kong food classics. Some of these favorites are the spam instant noodles, scrambled eggs with Hokkaido milk on thick slices of toasts, and egg tarts!
There may not be any written and proven history of egg tarts, but there are certainly stories. These stories are all important and part of the egg tart identity. Egg tarts are a reflection of the fusion of cultures in Hong Kong today. These egg tarts tell a story of how society progresses and changes as they adopt other cultures into their own.
Our Philadelphia Egg Tart Journey
We set out our egg tart taste journey by searching for “egg tart” on Yelp (where people mark, comment and rate on local restaurants) and it provided us with a list of bakeries and restaurants that provide Philadelphia’s best egg tarts. We confined our search within bakery stores in Philadelphia Chinatown area, with the hope in making them more comparable. After composing a list of potential stores, we ended up visiting four of them – St Honore Pastries, Hong Kong Bakery, Mong Kok Station Bakery, and Mayflower Cafe & Bakery. They are all clustered around the intersection of Race Street and 10th Street.
The first thing that surprised us was the high concentration of Chinese bakeries in such a small area. The second thing followed after our egg tart journey, when we realized how distinct the different egg tart flavors are when comparing them with each other.
We visited Chinatown on January 29th, 2015, on a Thursday morning. Our first stop was St Honore Pastries because the egg tarts there received so much praise as the “best egg tarts” in Chinatown, in Philadelphia, or ever existed. When we arrived there at around 10 am, although there were only two customers in store, the plate of egg tarts on display had already been sold out; we assume as breakfast. While we were told that they would be ready in 10 minutes, we decided to try the so-called “almond tarts” next to the egg tart plate, which looked much like egg tarts, only with white filling. The almond tarts were preserved cold, and had a pleasant flowery taste (although they did not taste like almond). Shortly after, we got to enjoy the steaming hot egg tarts. One thing we really appreciated was the soft and jiggly texture of both of the tarts, which to some degree made up for the missing of egg and almond tastes. Overall, we rated the egg tarts and almond tarts two stars and three stars (out of five) respectively.
before……… 10 minutes later!
Only a few doors away stands Hong Kong Bakery, our second stop. The egg tarts there are sold at a price of $0.85, comparing with the $0.80 price for egg tarts and almond tarts in St Honore Pastries – we thought because they are larger in size. They were also sold as cold snacks; the texture was harder and more concrete, and the taste was quite sweet. But we mostly enjoyed it because of the hint of egg we tasted with every bite. We rated it as 3.5 stars because Tina realized with excitement that “this tastes like something I would get in Hong Kong.”
The third store we went to was Mong Kok Station Bakery, which was bigger and had more customers during our time of visit (most of whom are middle-age males). This was also getting later in the day, hitting an early lunchtime which could probably explain the increase in customers as we ticked off our bakery list. Mong Kok Station Bakery sells egg tarts and Portuguese tarts side by side at prices of $0.8 and $1.0. They also sold coconut tarts, which look completely different from the other two kinds so we decided not to try them. Out of curiosity we asked the salesperson what the difference was between the egg tarts and Portuguese tarts, and she told us the former were made of eggs and water while the latter were made of eggs and milk. What surprised us most was that we did taste out the ingredients and the difference from them! Besides, both of them were sold as cold; the texture of the egg tarts, while not jiggly, was very smooth, and the Portuguese tarts were perfectly caramelized, not a burn on our tart. We decided that they both worth 5 stars, because of the well refined tastes and texture.
Our last visit was to Mayflower Cafe & Bakery, where surprisingly we saw many people came as families (with the elders and kids) at a time around 11 am. This bakery sells egg tarts at the common price of $0.8; it also sells coconut tarts for $0.6, and they look like neither the egg tarts nor the coconut tarts from the previous shop. This is the only bakery out of the four that keeps their egg tarts warm (they keep the plate heated before moving it to the counter). The egg tarts themselves were also quite impressive: they looked very shiny and attractive, jiggly in texture but did not fall apart, and had a very natural taste of egg without being too sweet. No doubt, we rated it five stars – the fact that it was heated bumped it up a star!
Our Interviews and Critique
Before the trip, we designed some questions for the salespeople (who in some case are also the shop owners):
1. Are the egg tarts made in store?
2. How long does it take to make egg tarts?
3. How many can you sell each day?
4. Who are the customers? Americans? Asians? Other people?
5. Where did you come from?
6. What type of egg tarts are sold in your store?
With these questions, we hope to lead them to identify the origins of three factors involved in the selling process – the start (the salespeople themselves), the medium (egg tarts), and the target (the customers) – based on their daily experience and vision.
Out of the four bakeries, the salespeople in the first three answered either a part or all of our questions; those from Mayflower Cafe & Bakery refused because they were too busy. All of them proudly claimed that the egg tarts were made in store. The people from St Honore Pastries and Hong Kong Bakery said it took around half an hour to make egg tarts, while the people from Mong Kok Station Bakery said they would spend 2-3 hours just to make the base! Interestingly, none of them were sure about how many egg tarts they could sell each day, but Mong Kok Station Bakery people made a guess of 80-90 per day.
When it comes to identity, the salespeople from all three bakeries told us that they were from China (国内, or “domestic,” in their words), and when being asked specifically, they said either Hong Kong or Canton. All of them regarded their egg tarts had “Hong Kong flavor,” and the Portuguese tarts in Mong Kok Station Bakery adopted its flavor from Macao. When we asked them who their customers were, they said “both foreigners (老外 or 外国人) and Chinese would come…around half and half.”
We found their answers regarding identity questions particularly fascinating. First of all, even though they gave identical answers for the origins of their egg tarts, from our own experience, their products were actually very different from each other’s in size, flavor, and texture. Despite these differences they could still be classified as “Hong Kong egg tarts” popularized from cha chaan teng as we explained above, but the variations suggest certain level of transformation in recipe, techniques, or ingredients, which could be a reflection of the transformation in social experience, or exchange of cooking ideas that worths further investigation.
The identity story here is not only about egg tarts; it is also about people involved. Between us, Tina speaks English and Cantonese, Xue speaks English and Mandarin, and our conversations with the salespeople were carried in a strange mixture of Cantonese and Mandarin. We thought, this was probably one of the reasons for them to identify us as “insiders,” and naturally use terms like “domestic” and “foreigners” when referring to China and people who are not Chinese. Still it is interesting to notice where they draw the lines between “us” and “them,” and how they identified themselves as Chinese people who were distinctive from “foreigners” in the environment of a Chinatown in an American city.
After our research and egg tart journey, we reflected back to our original questions – What is an egg tart and where is it from? Although we still do not have a concrete answer, we do have a better understanding of the egg tart. Our interviewing and presenting experiences when asking our peers what they thought of egg tarts, just further made us understand that everyone has their own answers. With every different response we got, we had to just accept that there is no right answer.
We realized, the egg tart is a representation of an integration of cultures that have formed over the past few centuries. There will never be the “right” egg tart, since it has evolved over past few years as other cultures adopt and influence the taste, texture, and ingredients of this tart.
The egg tart has become a part of many different cities’, cultures’, and people’s identities. To the Portuguese, it is their creme brulee. To the English, is their sweet tart. To the Macaunese and Hong Kongers, it is their hand held comfort food. To others, it is a sweet and loveable tart. Who doesn’t love egg tarts?! The egg tart has become a staple of Hong Kong dimsum and cha chaan teng diets, but it also has become a part of the city’s national identity.
Today, there are already unique versions of the egg tart and it just further says that food and culture is always changing. It may be a bold statement to make and we are frustrated that we never found the “perfect egg tart”, but we know that there never was and never will be the accurate egg tart. So, we are excited to see what versions of the egg tart we will taste in our futures!