Header image courtesy of Tao Heung Holdings Ltd
A familiar sight in the windows of Hong Kong bakeries, the fragrant and irresistible egg tart is both a special treat and a staple in the diet of Hongkongers. First arriving on our shores in the late 1940s, Hongkongers from all walks of life have turned to the eggy custard treat for comfort, and visitors from abroad make it their mission to taste the ubiquitous egg tart. But how did such a sweet treat become ingrained in the dietary vocabulary of a city not typically known for desserts? Read on for a succinct history of the egg tart and how it became Hong Kong’s favourite pastry.
Egg tarts (蛋撻; daan6 taat1) are well-recognised pastries of Hong Kong, both locally and internationally. Translating quite literally into “egg tart,” the pastry consists of an eggy custard centre with a pastry crust. Most bakeries and dim sum restaurants make theirs with a flaky puff pastry crust with multiple layers, but certain bakers will pay homage to the tart’s Western history and utilise a rich and buttery shortbread crust.
There is a bit of debate amongst Hong Kong locals as to which crust is superior, but it’s all in good fun! Regardless of which you prefer, the crust is often made with lard or vegetable shortening to keep its buttery and flakey goodness, so egg tarts are not quite the vegetarian-friendly treat you would imagine.
The Hong Kong egg tart does have a close cousin, although the degree of relationship varies depending on who you speak to. The famous Macanese egg tart—inspired by the Portuguese pastel de nata (“cream pastry”)—looks quite similar to the Hong Kong egg tart, but features a torched top and a filo pastry crust. Macanese egg tarts sky-rocketed to fame across Asia after its recipe was sold to KFC in 1999. If dessert enthusiasts want to try the original recipe from when the tart was first introduced to Macau, Lord Stow’s Bakery, the shop set up in Coloane Village by British pharmacist Andrew Stow in 1989, still churns out authentic Macanese tarts.
The core of Hong Kong culture is essentially a story of fusion and mash-ups, a result of generations of Hongkongers living under British colonial rule. Egg tarts are no exception, and there is not a singular agreed-upon origin story of the pastry, although the popular consensus is that it did come from Canton (now Guangzhou). Given that Canton was the only accessible port for foreign traders and businessmen, the local cuisine was heavily influenced by global flavours and recipes, one of which was the English custard tart.
English custard tarts have a deep history in British baking history, supposedly making regular appearances in the court of Henry VIII. As British businessmen set up their operations across China, they ran into the problem of a tricky palate. A saying amongst chefs is that the Chinese eat for the flavour of the sauce, whereas Westerners eat for the flavour of the ingredients, prompting these businessmen to bring their own chefs. Their presence in Guangzhou resulted in a fusion of flavours, but also a confusing start to the classic Hong Kong egg tart.
Some credit the development of the egg tart to Chinese chefs observing their Western counterparts in the kitchen and modifying the English custard tart recipe to fit local ingredients, swapping out the custard and butter for eggs, milk, and lard. As primarily Western ingredients, things like butter and custard were hard and expensive to come by, and the Chinese already had a recipe for steamed eggs, so the switch was natural.
Others say that in the 1920s, a restaurant in Guangzhou replaced the shortbread crust common in English custard tarts for the flaky pastry crust already being used in the other local items like barbecued pork buns. And finally, there is also talk about a series of weekly competitions in Guangzhou hosted by Western stores hoping to attract customers, of which the adapted egg tart emerged as the surviving winner.
Following the natural flow of trade relations and immigration with Hong Kong, the egg tart made its way south. By the 1940s, the egg tart had arrived in Hong Kong, but was strictly an upper-class delicacy found in high-end Western restaurants. However, one of the pivotal moments for the rise of the Hong Kong egg tart is in the post-Second World War era, during which British power on the city loosened.
It lay the foundation for Hong Kong’s reputation as a liminal space where East meets West as Hongkongers rose to fill the gaps caused by the war and a weakened England. Taxi companies leased cars to the government, Vitasoy received United Nations subsidies to provide nutritional drinks for schoolchildren, and the development of the bing sutt and cha chaan teng created affordable local restaurants to feed workers. It was here that the elusive egg tart was repurposed to the pastry that sits in the heart (and stomach) of every Hongkonger.
Hong Kong egg tarts are not meant to be exclusive. Nowadays, they can be found in any local bakery or dim sum restaurant. However, pundits will argue that one of the most famous bakeries for egg tarts is Tai Cheong Bakery (泰昌餅家), located on Lyndhurst Terrace in Central. First established in 1954, Tai Cheong’s claim to fame is through the patronage of Chris Patten, the last governor of colonial Hong Kong. In fact, the shop was nicknamed Fat Pang Egg Tart (肥彭蛋撻; fei4 paang4 daan6 taat1) for a while, after Patten’s love for the iconic treat!
Well-loved by both locals and tourists flocking to the shop in search of a sweet pastry, Tai Cheong differentiates its popular recipe from others by featuring a buttery cookie crust, rather than the lard-based one favoured by other bakeries. During the 2008 economic crisis, the bakery struggled with rent, eventually having to relocate with the assistance of loyal and passionate customers. Fortunately, they weathered the storm and now have multiple outlets across Hong Kong, but their Lyndhurst Terrace location will always remain a cult favourite.
A quick search online brings up not just blurry photos of people’s breakfast pastries, but an unending stream of graphics, stickers, and merchandise based on the world-famous Hong Kong egg tart. And just as how the original confection was born from a fusion of Eastern and Western recipes, the storied Hong Kong egg tart is now being reinvented and innovated with new flavours for a new generation. Even at Tai Cheong, the godfather of Hong Kong egg tarts, one can now find Japanese-inspired matcha-flavoured egg tarts.
Egg tarts started as a symbol of exclusivity and later morphed into a pastry for the people, accessible to all. Almost a century after its first appearance on the shores of Hong Kong, it has certainly established its place in the history and stomach of the city, and will continue to be a favourite amongst its people.