Food for Thought: Dan tat

A delicious meeting point between Western and Eastern cuisine

Person in thinking pose with a thought bubble overhead featuring an image of egg tarts
Whether you like it flaky, crunchy, or buttery; there’s a egg tart waiting for you. Illustration: Alyssa Marie Umbal / The Peak

By: Nancy La, News Editor

Words alone are not enough to describe my affinity for egg tarts, or dan tat. A well-made, fresh out of the oven dan tat is the perfect mini pastry humankind has ever created. Nothing else can beat the sensation of biting into a fresh egg tart, with its flaky, yet tender and buttery shell accompanied by the delicate, perfectly balanced sweet egg custard. Dan tat has a complicated history intertwined with British colonization, making every bite that much more complex. 

In 1841, Britain and China were engaged in the Opium War because of Britain’s role in exporting opium to China and causing an addiction crisis. During this time, Britain invaded Hong Kong. Eventually, in 1842, China signed an agreement ceding Hong Kong to the British. This led to an intermingling of Western and Eastern cultures for over 150 years 

Out of all places to observe such a cultural exchange, Hong Kong’s cafés — also known as cha chaan teng — win for being the most delicious. Dan tat are served fresh in these cafés at around noon, just in time for the English tradition of afternoon tea. The British introduced custard tarts to the colony, but the original recipe involved butter and custard powder, two very expensive commodities at the time. Hong Kong chefs opted to make the filling with just eggs, milk, and sugar. And for the crust, they used lard, giving dan tat an extra tender exterior that butter would not be able to achieve. 

Other variations on the flaky dan tat include Portuguese egg tarts (or pastéis de nata) and a cookie crust dan tat made out of butter. Pastéis de nata are originally from Portugal and were invented by monks who, after using egg whites to starch their collars, needed to use up the leftover egg yolks. These egg tarts are visually different from dan tat too; they are baked at a much higher temperature, resulting in beautiful charred spots on the surface of the pastries. They also have a much crunchier crust due to the high butter content and temperature. As for the cookie crust dan tat, it has a buttery shortbread crust instead of a flaky crust.

Luckily for those of us living in Metro Vancouver, all three types of tart are widely available at Asian bakeries. Kam Do Bakery is a well-known name in the Chinese bakery scene, and I can personally vouch for their dan tat. Other Chinese bakeries also sell dan tat, and I recommend visiting these shops at around noon for the freshest dan tat. A bite of this flaky yet creamy pastry is not only a pleasure for the taste buds, but also offers a quick look into complicated historical events — such as the Fishball Riots — which reflect national identity politics affecting the people of Hong Kong today.

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