It can be easy to feel out of place when you travel, nothing does for it like being the solo white man and nothing tickles my not-so-dormant narcissism as when someone takes my photo just for being an ‘alien’. This is never helped by my obnoxiously large backpack, nor pinkish complexion and blonde hair.
Hong Kong has a capacity to melt those alienating moments, there is no ‘default’ or ‘norm’. It is a hive which clutches to the side of a sub-tropical mountain range. The scale of the place is incomprehensible, it is the creation of titans inhabited by ants. Human beings are dwarfed by their own homes, as they scuttle along layers of walkways, subways and skyways. Under the boot of Imperial Britain, it exploded as a multicultural metropolis. The sense of height was something new and phenomenal to me, there are tall things – in London, Big Ben passes for one (some Londoners, I think, solemnly believe that it is still the tallest building in the world) – and then there is Hong Kong. Every street is a valley in a mountain-range of buildings.
At street level the food scene inhabits every bustling corner, I was fortunate to have a local companion, who directed me to a selection of savouries. Despite an incident involving a gnarled chicken’s food concealed in a cloudy consommé, plenty of squid-looking items, as well as suckling on some sumptuous soup-dumplings, I found that I was stuck for breakfast time. The solution presented itself to me almost immediately: stocked, without fail, in little glass cabinets, in almost every public space, as though they were a safety precaution as necessary as fire extinguishers: little yellow tartlets. Each one, almost bruleed on-top and varying in colour from natural rich custard to traffic-light orange. The Hong Kong egg tart was a flavour so familiar and at once alien in my surroundings. There is little so European as custard and pastry, and thus there was little quite so comforting in the overwhelming difference of Hong Kong. Of course, it is a mouthful of the colonial homesickness. Egg tarts are thought to have emerged from the Portuguese Pastel de Nata, baked at their missionary at Macau. It reminded me completely of eating French food in Puducherry or Percy Pigs in Cyprus. Quite why the colonists thought that they needed to bake Egg tarts in so brutally a humid climate escaped me at the time, but it made me feel just a little bit less out of the usual if something like this could survive in such a seemingly opposite culture, then I might at least stand a chance.
A whole year later and my romance with this little custard delight culminated as I arranged to incorporate a trip to Lisbon as the conclusion of my adventures through Spain. The home of the Pastel De Nata, as they are called in Lisbon, (I prefer ‘egg tart’, it is explicit and humble) is at the Jeronimos monastery on the city’s hip and trendy fringes. Sitting and munching the original at last, I was struck that something so small could have garnered such a following, there were very few towns in coastal China in which you would not see egg-tarts in every window. And it seems that everywhere the Portuguese went, so their tarts followed, Brazil is another popular if bizarre location for the humble delicacy.
It was not until this week when I was passing through Sainsbury’s in a post-study trance, trying to gather something resembling nourishment, that I realised what those Portuguese bakers in Macau were thinking. Nestled among the usual suspects of the Sainsbury’s bakery section: olive rolls, ciabatta and mozzarella and tomato slices: were three little egg tarts. I was stunned, perhaps because of my hungry delirium. It was a moment of sudden warmth. The bakers of Macau had comforted themselves by making what they always had at home in Portugal. It was as alien in darkest Edinburgh as it was in Macau, but the egg tarts offer a consistency which we crave when we feel out of place or uncomfortable. The reason for the egg tart’s proliferation in China is not only confectionary delight, but the simplicity of its comforting conception, pastry and custard and nothing else. Amongst the chicken-feet of China or the dark days in Edinburgh, I know that I can have an egg tart, knowing exactly that it will satisfy.