During the 1950s, Hong Kong’s industrial development prompted a flow of immigrants from all over mainland China. A sudden rise in population not only led to the housing public plan but also rooftop huts, houseboats and overcrowding of existing accommodation. Along with the influx of people, new food and cuisines were introduced to Hong Kong and stalls and restaurants also began to pop up. As the island was a British colony for 150 years, the predominant culinary theme is Cantonese Chinese food with strong Western influences.
This prevalent culinary theme can be seen particularly in a typical Hong Kong tea cafe called Cha Chaan Teng. The main characteristic of such cafes is that the menu sells Western and Chinese food at low prices. Cha Chaan Teng provides a range of cheap and fast food that is served within minutes. These cafes are part of Hong Kong’s identity. It is in these establishments that egg tarts, as a bakery item, were introduced to accompany afternoon tea. A consequent change in tastes took place during the 1980s due to a shift in social values and the broadening of their food horizons. People of Hong Kong were looking for different ways to represent their new, globally connected status.
Over time, egg tarts became a must on the menus of almost every tea house and a favourite dessert at many Cantonese-style dim sum restaurants. If you mention dan tat, Tai Cheong Bakery is bound to be mentioned in the conversation. It is synonymous with the iconic egg tart of Hong Kong. According to their website, Tai Cheong Bakery opened in 1954 in Lyndhurst Terraces, Hong Kong. The current owner, Mr. Au Yeung, claims that he sells 3,000 egg tarts everyday in each of his branches, of which there are twelve.
The bakery is also famous for its distinctive cookie crust and their unofficial mascot, the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten. With many other chefs visiting Hong Kong to experience the culinary delights, all of the most eminent have reserved a special mention for Tai Cheong’s egg tart. Chef David Myers for instance, of ‘Hinoki and The Bird, Los Angeles’, produced a four-part series on Hong Kong. In his very first episode, he shows the bakery and describes the egg tart as ‘heavenly, so warm and delicate’. French Chef Alain Duccase has mentioned the bakery’s egg tart as one of his favourite treats in the entire world, noting that ‘this classic dish with contrasting texture’ must always be eaten on the street, fresh from the oven.
Together with the delicious egg tarts, the concept that keeps the bakery at the height of success is collective memory – as created and passed from generation to generation. Tai Cheong Bakery is part of this collective memory, as its traditional baking methods and the never changing taste of the egg tarts trigger fond memories of the old days in Hong Kong.
By Kumud Dadlani