Egg tarts and strong tea mixed with condensed milk have long been a favorite elixir of many Hong Kong people to ease the pressure and stress of a fast-pace lifestyle. But together with the won-ton (pork dumpling) noodle soup and red bean puddings, these delicacies are disappearing from our culinary landscape.
The local press has reported that the beloved egg tart, a favorite of people of all ages, is going the way of the dodo. I have not come across a street vendor selling sweet rice cakes, my childhood favorite, for years. The last time I had won-ton noodle soup was in the coffee shop of a five-star hotel. Understandably, it was nothing like what I had at a street-side cooked food stall, or better known in the local dialect as a dai pai dong.
Indeed, both the dai pai dongs and the cha chaan tings, or Hong Kong-style dinners, have fallen on hard times. Rising property prices and rents in Hong Kong have relentlessly pushed these low-profit-margin eateries, catering mainly to the low-income segments of the population, to extinction. The final blow was the city-wide ban on indoor smoking, which took effect at the beginning of the year.
Of course, not everything old is worth preserving. And the demise of these inefficient commercial enterprises is an entirely logical and predictable occurrence that has little significance in the grand scheme of Hong Kong's overall social and economic development. But their disappearance, like so many familiar places and old customs, has saddened our hearts because they have been part of our lives for so long.
Those are the places where we hung out with our friends when we had little spare money and plenty of time. Each of us would order a cup of tea or coffee, which cost the equivalent of about 20 US cents, and spend hours talking about girls and fast cars, neither of which were remotely within our reach.
Sometimes the young waiters, in their usual garb of singlet and black pajama pants, would join in the conversation. They were more than keen to recount their amorous exploits or their luck at the horse races.
But for most patrons, their interest was nothing more than the cup of tea that always seemed stronger and more aromatic than the one brewed at home, no matter how much tea leaf went into the pot.
Some culinary experts were convinced that the secret lay in mashing egg shell with the tea leaf to achieve the "smoothness" in taste that was so valued by aficionados. It was rumored that some tea houses used nylon stockings to strain the tea. Thanks to its finer mesh, nylon stockings were believed to be more effective than another kind of cloth in removing the impurities in the brew.
The lowly egg tart has its origin in the English custard pie. Since it was first introduced in the 1940s, egg tarts were a must on the menus of almost every tea house, and a favorite desert at many Cantonese-style dim sum restaurants.
A proper egg tart is judged mostly by the puffiness of its crust. Making the crust requires patience and skill. The machine-made variety, which has a harder crust, is generally shunned by consumers. Hong Kong people take their egg tarts seriously.
Despite their popularity, traditional-style egg tarts are facing a bleak future because the price they can fetch no longer justifies the cost that goes into making them.
Perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future, real egg-tarts with puffy crusts will re-emerge as a delicacy served at fancy restaurants. But like the won-ton noodle soup I had at the hotel coffee shop, it just will not be the same ever again.
(China Daily 09/11/2007 page10)