Feature: Egg Custard Tarts

When an egg tart is perfect, it’s a sun yellow, joyous mess. Buttery but light pastry will crumble off and stick all over your face. Later that day you will discover flecks of it in your clothes and wonder quite how that much of it got on, rather than in you. The custard will be sweet, but not painfully so. It will speak of egg but not scream it at you. If it’s perfect.

When they’re not perfect, they are less like sun yellow and more like Tartrazine E102, Yellow #5. The pastry will cling on for dear life to the inert yellow mass in a despondent clump. Later that day you may feel bitter about it and wonder why you suffered such injustice. The custard will be too sweet, or not sweet enough, and taste more eggy than an egg festival in egg town. It’s a parody, an affront to the real thing.

Growing up in British colonial Hong Kong as a mixed race child, I was unaware of the significance or fierce debate over the ‘daan taat’. It was only later that I found out that egg custard tarts are a Hong Kong delicacy thought to have emerged from colonialist influence. They are popular in the ubiquitous ‘cha chaan teng’ tea houses (the Chinese answer to a cafe or diner) and a staple of the yum cha dessert cart. Hong Kong’s relatively short history bears witness to a heated family squabble over whether flaky pastry or shortcrust pastry is the more authentic way. No one knows what the British opinion on the matter might be, possibly because they can’t be heard over the raucous exuberance of a Cantonese conversation about food.

For those who believe in the short crust style, the holy of holies is the Tai Cheong bakery that began as a little shop on Lyndhurst Terrace in Central, and has now expanded to 14 branches across Hong Kong. These were the egg tarts beloved by Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patten. My preference is for the flaky crust favoured by the Maxim’s chain, a name translated from Mei Sum; Beautiful Heart bakery.

On many Sundays in the mid 80s in Hong Kong, my mother, father, sister and I would join Ma’s sister Aunty Helen and Uncle Ken for yum cha. These events followed a fairly strict protocol. There would be a strenuous debate over the phone in the morning relating to choice of restaurant, followed by a vigorous discussion on child tardiness. This would then flow seamlessly into verbal sparring with taxi drivers. After a brief pause in hostilities while we were seated in the restaurant, old battle-axes were given fresh polish and we were serenaded by the artillery fire of our family’s discourse.

I am not sure if it was amnesia or the taste of the tarts that kept me optimistic about weekends. Egg custard tarts on those seemingly endless Sundays would be the taste I most remembered about growing up in Hong Kong, and a taste I’d end up chasing around the world from then on.

We moved to Adelaide, Australia in 1988. I was 8 years old. Despite my mother’s Hakka background, an ethnic minority of Chinese known for their nomadic nature, relocating to Adelaide was bewildering. We’d moved out of a densely packed multicultural megalopolis to the uniformly white suburbs of South Australia. Even the climate seemed to conspire against her; Hong Kong had been tropical and humid, while Adelaide was stiflingly bone dry. In our first Australian winter Ma remarked gravely “Jin, terrible! I will most certainly die.” Shortly after receiving her driving license at the age of 40, my sister and I thought something other than the weather was more of a threat.

Adelaide’s Chinatown was not like it is now. We used to joke that you could count the number of Chinese people in Adelaide’s one mile square city centre on one hand. In the late 80s the Chinese people that were migrating to Australia were headed to Sydney and the established Chinese community there. In an act of insurrection Ma corraled the few friends she had who were Chinese under “C” in the teledex and cooked rice with every meal, including breakfast.

On Sundays Ma would herd us into the car under the pretext of food shopping. My sister and I took turns in feigning illnesses and school assignments, all to no avail. By now the gatherings of six had been whittled down to three as we endured the Ice Age of our parents’ relationship. Ma, with her driving license held for a scant handful of months, adrift in an unwelcoming sea of white suburbia, would aim for the happy chaos of the Central Markets. Waiting for her there were the venders loudly touting their wares and the adjacent Chinatown, which for me meant the promise of my favourite dessert. The three of us were genetically endowed with absolutely no sense of direction and most often the drive to the market evoked a collective sense of desperation. My sister and I remember with fondness that first summer of our discontent; the car parked miles from the market and Ma relying on how she looked like a foreign tourist to elicit some kind of assistance from locals, to the search for the elusive angle park, as the stress of parallel parking a hatchback was simply too much.

Egg custard tarts in Adelaide’s budding Chinatown were surprisingly good, flaky like I preferred them to be, with a taste that was satisfying for its familiarity. Later, as a teenager; bored and aimless in the city after school, while other kids were hanging out at Wendy’s I’d find myself drawn to Chinatown, unsure of my cultural identity and where I fit in, but sure that the taste of egg custard tarts was somehow bound up in it.

So far I have eaten egg custard tarts in a list of vicinities that includes Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Berlin, London, Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle. I didn’t find any in Mexico, but one place in Hermosillo, Sonora did have Peking Duck tacos. Sometimes I’d find them in bustling Chinatowns that were almost indistinguishable from Hong Kong, other times I’d catch the familiar yellow orb out of the corner of my eye in the window of the only Chinese bakery in an otherwise white district, and have to turn back and try one. These tarts weren’t always perfect, and I wasn’t always near weeping with homesickness when I ate one, but they were always laced with the idea that there were other co-conspirators out there, other foreigners making some kind of statement about who they were in strange and sometimes hostile places. If Mooncakes were the dessert of choice for rebels smuggling messages in 14th century China, egg custard tarts became a kind of a message to the different selves I’d inhabited.

Tasting authentic local cuisine gives me more of a direct knowledge of a place than any sight seeing or guided tour. But somehow, in between the quesadilla, barbecued kangaroo steaks, ice kachang, Californian fusion sushi, weisswurst and chicken tikka I still manage to find room for Chinese food. Something about the inevitable, strange sadness that the perils and exhilaration of travel create lead me to search for something familiar to eat. It fascinates me to think about how the foreigners-who-are-now-locals interpret their personal transplanting to this place, and how they collectively re-imagine home to be.

Because that’s what Chinatowns are. Collective re-imaginings and reinterpretations, miniature cities within a host city, and an antithesis to the process of integrating. I pondered this as I made my way to Zagat rated Ocean Seafood Restaurant, 747 N. Broadway. The Chinese community in Los Angeles’ sprawling Chinatown don’t appear to be packing up and heading back to China anytime soon. On the whole they’ll identify as Chinese Angelinos, and will create a cultural identity that is a hybrid of both, locating themselves somewhere along a spectrum of being that spans continents. I thought about how much I had changed since arriving in California as I walked up the stairway to the flamboyant dining room, past the mirrors and fish tanks packed with lobsters that feature in Chinese restaurants everywhere. Then I proceeded to unnerve the hostess with my half crazed demands for a box of egg custard tarts.

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