lately i have been on an egg tart pilgrimage, searching for the best, old skool egg tarts in vancouver.
as a kid going to dim sum every saturday at the park lock or the ming’s in chinatown, i looked forward to the end of the savoury cart melee as the last of the sticky rice (gnaw mai fan) and sui mai made their final laps around the noisy circuit. the sweets would certainly be making its entrance soon, a signal our weekend ‘yum cha‘ ritual was nearing its end, and food shopping amongst the elbowing throng on pender street was next on the agenda.
a new chant could be heard from the din of the white noise – a different cadence in the hollering. alert ears somehow picked up the new tone and wandering necks craned for a glimpse of the offerings.
the dessert lady wheeled past with the usual suspects: almond jello adorned with the ubiquitous scoop of canned cocktail fruit, deep fried sesame balls filled with red bean paste (jeen duey) and chinese egg tarts (daan taat).
the egg tarts were the stars – multiple layers of delicate puff pastry shell enveloping a warm, sweet egg custard centre. the custard had a light softness, but was not mushy or watery – timing is everything in maintaining this fine balance. a transcendental combination of textures with unhealthy amounts of egg and fat at its gastronomical forefront, a daan tat was, and still is for me, comfort and love all wrapped in a tinfoil cup.
but the daan taats of yore are hard to find these days.
gone are the push carts at dim sum. you have to order items off a menu, which does make more sense – it’s more fresh. but as an obvious sign of getting old, my longing for nostalgia refuses to enjoy the immediacy of my piping hot-to-order ha gow or just-steamed cha sui bao. the ceremony is gone for the most part, the excitement of the approaching cart is no more. i suppose it is a quieter meal without the cacophony of ladies, hoarse from calling out dishes, but if i wanted quiet i wouldn’t go for chinese food.
with the new era of dim summing, changes to egg tarts have come as well. a cookie-crust style shell has infiltrated and become popularized.
this ‘short crust‘ tart is more dense and is similar to shortbread in texture. it’s obvious why restaurants would prefer this version – it is far easier to make, something that a lazy baker like myself could even do. their flaky counterparts demand time, each layer requires this, which is why it tastes so darn good. layers of toil equate depths of goodness. you can taste when something is made with love, nothing prefab can match the beauty of such a gift.
but i’m finding this gift harder to enjoy in the city. the short crust was winning the egg tart battle. my moments of lament to the family about the dearth of sweet flaky goodness at the end of dim sum would produce weak chortling of how they never really noticed the change and as they popped the last bites of cookie crust into their mouths, they said they actually liked them more.
it’s probably because there’s no more fighting for an egg tart, i mutter under my breath.
however all is not lost. a few months back, i happened upon south ocean seafood restaurant in richmond. dim sum here was good, really decent, and i can happily report that the service matched the food. but what struck me as even more memorable was their stellar egg tarts.
multitudinous strands of pastry, each delicate layer sitting evenly atop the next, crisp wavering sheets perched at attention – yet ready to collapse gently into your mouth. and its custard centre: perfect in eggy texture, its hot out-of-the-oven glow – this was better than how i remembered it as a kid! it fell in the realm of: this is so good, i could shed a tear. there have been times when i’ve tasted something that’s been made with love, with the deepest of care, and it will prompt a little teary appreciation. i can’t help it.
the south ocean egg tart is up there as one of the best, if not the best in town. and i will arm-wrestle anyone who questions that statement, anytime.
a very close second can be found in a very nondescript bakery on kingsway in the collingwood neighbourhood. the tung hing bakery aka tiem bahn dong kahnh is a chinese-vietnamese bakery, known more for their bahn-mi sandwiches, which are exceptional, however their sweets are deserving of equal attention.
in the long queue for a lemongrass chicken bahn mi, you could be easily distracted not to notice the delicious array of pineapple, cocktail and coconut buns – ubiquitous pastries in any chinese bakery. but if you take a moment to look at them, as you shuffle towards the busy sandwich lady, you will notice how perfectly formed they are, with generous filling, copious amounts of coconut shavings and fresh cream. what struck me was they looked like the buns i remember seeing as a kid, not the piddly modern cantonese versions with a squirt of filling, sprigs of coconut interspersed with bald patches, questionable thin white strands of cream-like substance. this was the real deal, old skool style.
tung hing’s egg tart is chock-full of layers, it is flaky crust on steroids. fluffy, buttery and wholly satisfying. i’ve been in the store when the egg tarts have just come out of the oven. the custard erupts into a well-formed peak from the oven heat, and slowly subsides while cooling. there were older egg tarts in the case, but when it came time for my order, the woman kindly grabbed a fresh tart from the cooling trays behind her.
biting into the warm dessert melted the grey vancouver sky into the brightest of vitamin d glows. such a simple thing created a little pocket of love. my perma-smile continued for the rest of the day.
the irony of this find, in a vietnamese sandwich bakery, is the displacement of where it rests and where it technically should be. but maybe its irony is its true beauty, as sometimes you have to leave your culture and the comfort of that mindset, to find it again.
i remember taking vipassana, a 10-day silent meditation retreat and discovered that this old form of buddhist thought whose origins were indian, was lost for generations in that country. it was later rediscovered in burma, where monks kept the traditions of vipassana in its purest and unsullied form. reintroduced to its home country, vipassana continues to be practiced in india to this day, with traditions intact.
having one of the city’s best egg tarts in a vietnamese bakery is not shocking, nor is it a travesty – it is a celebration. there has been a long history of chinese settlement in vietnam so traditional cantonese baking is obviously alive and well in that part of asia. i’m happy it is and that we’re able to enjoy its preservation here in vancouver.
in the wake of modern short cut short crust egg tarts, traditions are being kept and nurtured, someone is continuing to make these pastries with passion in its original style, and i’m glad i was able to accidentally discover this unsung hero.
so all is not lost, there are places in town that do it right. the phyllo-like flaky egg tart is not extinct.
and the nostalgic kid in me is thankful for it.