Egg Tarts and other Hong Kong Sweets

Hong Kong is a town of energy and mystery.  You get the feeling that however many times you visit, you will never completely know the city.  I’m drawn by the crowded and fragrant street markets, the spectacular cityscape, and the melting pot of cultures and people.  You can wander out of your western hotel and in a matter of blocks get immersed in an exotic vegetable market, tip back a G & T while watching live soccer from England, and enter the fray of the bustling downtown skywalks of Central, where finance reigns supreme.

Hong Kong has lots of history.  The Fragrant Harbor has been a meeting place, a port of commerce, and place of conflict between East and West for centuries. But above all else, it has always been a Cantonese city.  Even under British rule, when the Chinese population was driven from the center of town, the pace, the culture and the foods have always been overwhelmingly drawn from southern China.  Yes, there are relics of British rule and Western influence. The English street signs, the Hong Kong dollar, and the fierce independence of the Hong Konger.  In fact these days the drive for separation from mainland China is once again gaining steam. But that is another story, for another post.

A great pleasure of Hong Kong, is the morning.  The tropical heat is temporarily at bay, the pace of the city relaxes, if just for a moment, and perhaps most impressively, great rolling carts of delicious and bright colored egg tarts appear on the streets.

Now the Hong Kong obsession with egg tarts is fairly recent, as these things go.  Introduced from the neighboring Portuguese colony of Macau in the 1940s, the Dan Tat as it is known in Cantonese, is a European invention tracing its roots to England and Portugal.  So it would be fair to say that the arrival of the egg tart probably goes back to the first Opium War of the mid 19th century.  Those wars, raged by the British Navy to open China to trade, brought an influx of Western influences to the Cantonese region of China.

Although technically a dim sum dish, egg tarts are seen everywhere on the streets.  Bakeries roll great trays of the sweets onto the sidewalks in the early morning hours to capture the rushing sidewalk trade.  And that is where you will find the best, freshest, and most buttery tarts.

I must admit it is quite easy to be caught up in this while visiting Hong Kong.  Very inexpensive and very delicious, the egg tart quickly became the morning staple for Michon and me during our wanderings through the city.  You will find them pushed in your path from Causeway Bay, to Kowloon to Wan Chai to Central.  And always warm, fresh, flakey and delicious.  And, not surprisingly, since they are everywhere, and competition is huge, bakeries have taken to using duck egg in substitute for chicken egg at times.  This yields a custard tart with a vibrant yellow glow; the better to attract the bustling crowds streaming past.

I prefer mine on a park bench or other similar morning redoubt, lazily contemplating the frenzy of this wonderous city, perhaps sharing a pineapple bun with Michon, a South China Morning Post on my lap, and a smile on my face.


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