My Own Remembrance of Things Past: Dan Tats

August 24th, 2007

Dantat_2

Johanna of The Passionate Cook announced a most interesting theme for this month’s Sugar High Friday: local specialties. While living in the Bay Area affords me the luxury of having many famous local goods to choose from, I really wanted to pick one that was close to my heart: Chinese egg custard tarts, or dan tat.

When I was young, my family lived about an hour south of San Francisco, and back then they didn’t have many stores around that sold Asian groceries – Chinese vegetables, dried herbs and mushrooms, fish and meat fresh and butchered to the customer’s order. (As a lifelong resident of this area, it’s amazing to me how much the gastronomic landscape has evolved over the years – now Asian shopping centers dot the Bay Area like pearls along the necklace of highways that encircle the bay.) So every weekend our parents would pile us kids into the station wagon and we would drive up north on the highway to the big city, and to the venerable Chinatown on Stockton Street where they could find the ingredients to make the dishes they remembered from Hong Kong, their homeland.

I remember Chinatown being a cacophonous kaleidoscope to the senses: boxes overflowing with lychees and Chinese broccoli and all sorts of things I never saw in my local Safeway; shoppers jostling and bumping around the stands, assiduously picking through the produce to select only the best specimens; tiny old ladies in smocks unloading even more produce from the back of delivery vans, proclaiming the quality and inexpensiveness of their goods (if you walk through Chinatown and you don’t speak Chinese, you may wonder why the grocers appear to be screaming at the top of their lungs at you – they’re actually urging you to buy their cherries/peaches/item of the day, which are of course much better and cheaper than any other place on the block, so why don’t you buy some now?)

Chinatown was a sort of farmers’ market before farmer’s markets came into vogue: although nobody threw around words like "sustainable" or "organic" back then, everyone who went shopping in Chinatown showed a passion and care for the food they bought that mirrors the spirit of sustainable agriculture today. No one would be caught buying ragged, limp greens or bruised, unripe fruit or less-than-fresh fish; indeed, the person who tried to sell such inferior goods probably wouldn’t be patronized for very long!

My mother would adroitly navigate the streets of Chinatown, going to the places she knew and trusted: the stand with the best bok choy and lotus roots; the butcher who gave her the best chickens and cuts of beef; the dried goods store with the bins of dried shrimp and scallops and seaweed she used in her soups. I’m embarrassed to admit that although I spent years watching my mother bargain with and haranguing the shopkeepers in her quest for the best, I have nowhere near her shopping skills; even today, when I go to Chinatown with her, I always stand back and watch her mastery on display, as she somehow cajoles and convinces the grocers to give her the good stuff they’re holding back, and to charge her just a little less.

It was fun, as a child, to see the incredible excitement and bustle in Chinatown, but sometimes I would get tired of getting bumped around by pushy shoppers, or waiting as my mother conducted another interminable bargaining session. I would start tugging on her arm and whine about when we would be done, or better yet, when we would get to eat. My mother would tell me to be patient, just one more stop, and then we would go the bakery and I could get something sweet (I have always, always had a sweet tooth).

Chinese bakeries are like any other business in Chinatown: microcosms of incredible chaos and efficiency at once. While I am inspired and delighted by the pâtisseries of Paris, I have the utmost admiration for my local bakeries in Chinatown, which produce a staggering amount and variety of breads, cakes, tarts, and other pastries day in and day out. Every time you walk in the door of a bakery, you are greeted with case upon case of meat-stuffed pastries, custard-filled buns, elaborately frosted cakes, fruit-covered tarts, loaves of bread…and there are more trays coming out of the kitchen in a constant stream.

Although you may want to stand there goggle-eyed at the overwhelming array of choices, the counter staff and regular customers are seldom indulgent; it’s best to know what you want or the salesgirls will most likely move on to someone in less of a dither. Stepping up and speaking your order loudly will usually get you fast service; if you hover indecisively in the background you might never get served at all. However, the staff will usually give a quick description of any item you are curious about, and they are also quite good at pushing freshly baked items on you; if you’re not careful, you may end up walking away with a dozen piping hot something-or-others in a pink box.

The most amazing thing is, though, how inexpensive everything is. Most of the buns, which are usually a soft, fluffy, sweet bread with either a sweet or savory filling, are less than a couple of dollars. Other items in the cases are similarly priced, which is mind-boggling considering they are all homemade and you can find coffee shops selling a factory-made cookie for 4 dollars or more. To me, this affords one the incredible freedom to try almost anything since it will only cost you a dollar or two and you will quickly find your favorites. My boyfriend, who does not speak Chinese, has successfully bought many things at Chinese bakeries simply by pointing; he’s often come home with a six or seven different items which I have to explain to him and then he will happily try them all and decide which one he likes best.

My favorites? The cocktail bun (named not because of when it’s meant to be served but because its oblong shape resembles a rooster’s tailfeathers), a plain little bread filled with a creamy, coconut-flecked custard, and the egg custard tart, the actual subject of this entire post – thank you for your patience, dear reader!

Egg custard tarts are thought to have sprung from the British influence in Hong Kong; custard tarts with a smooth milky filling in a shortcrust pastry are a classically British dessert. There is also a Portuguese variant, the lovely pastéis de nata, which have a similar custardy filling but a caramelized, crème brûlée style top. Hong Kong residents often go on day trips to Macau, a former Portuguese colony about a 45 minute hydrofoil ride from Hong Kong, and a can’t-miss activity there is to sample the authentic pastéis de nata still made by local bakers. However, egg custard tarts in Hong Kong have evolved into their own unique and delicious creature, and a staple of Chinese bakeries and dim sum houses everywhere.

What distinguishes an egg custard tart is its flaky, tender shell (the most authentic ones are made with lard)that resembles puff pastry at its crisp and buttery best, cradling a bright yellow custard that teeters flan-like, just on the edge between set and gooey. Fresh from the oven, it is the sunniest, most comforting piece of bliss I can think of.  An old dan tat, with limpid gummy crust and rubbery Jello-y filling, is a tragic thing indeed.

In San Francisco’s Chinatown, one of the oldest and most famous Chinese communities in the world, there are many bakeries and restaurants selling egg custard tarts, but there is one place that stands above the rest – one that people in the know like my mother would go to – Golden Gate Bakery on Grant Ave.

Such is the reputation of the egg custard tarts at Golden Gate Bakery that lines r outinely snake out the door into the street. As the scent of butter and vanilla wafts outside, you can see people shifting their feet, hoping to reach the front of the line soon enough to snag some of the freshly baked tarts before they are gone. I know of no other bakery in Chinatown that has the audacity to close down for several weeks at a time while the owners go on "extended vacation"; making excellent egg custard tarts must have proven very profitable for them indeed!

Golden Gate Bakery’s egg custard tarts are considered on the "expensive" side at about $1.25 a piece – this is one of the reasons very few people make them at home because it really is so much cheaper to buy them. The tart shell pastry is also notoriously difficult to duplicate – although most recipes for Chinese flaky pastry involve a "water dough" and "oil dough" similar to the détrempe and beurrage used in puff pastry and the execution seems straightforward, somehow the tarts from the good bakeries always seem to have a supernatural flakiness and crispness that is, so far, out of my reach. If anyone has managed to penetrate the secrets of the egg custard tart, let me know!

If you do make it to San Francisco and visit Chinatown, do wander down Stockton Street and take in the amazing bustle of its denizens shopping, working, and living shoulder to shoulder in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the US. You’ll see stores and restaurants that have been around for years with yellowed menus taped to the walls, delis with whole barbecued pigs and roast ducks hanging in the windows, giant delivery trucks unloading produce at all times of day to the hands of waiting shoppers. Don’t go onto neighboring Grant Street unless you want a hefty dose of cheesy touristy silliness; wait until you get to Jackson Street to turn onto Grant, because Golden Gate Bakery will be just a few stores down. There will probably be a line, and be sure you bring enough cash because that’s all they accept. But it’s worth it for those sweet happiness-inducing handfuls – I’m as enamored of them now as I was years ago as a small child.

Dantat2

Golden Gate Bakery

1029 Grant Avenue

San Francisco, CA 94133

415-781-2627

For those of you wanting to brave egg custard tart making at home, here are a few online recipes as well as a dedicated eGullet thread. Several of these recipes use a shortcrust pastry, which is considerably simple and can yield delicious results as well – I’ve had more successes with them than with the flaky pastry.

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21 Comments so far ↓

  • Kat #1

    One of my favorite Chinese sweets, next to coconut jin dui. The crust has to be flaky or else! Loved your remembrance of the past :)

  • Rasa Malaysia #2

    Golden Gate egg tarts are the best. I used to line up for them. Now that I am no longer living in NoCal, I found one very good ones here in the San Gabriel Valley in LA. Equally good. :)

  • peabody #3

    What a great story about the tarts. I learn something new on your blog all the time. First moon cakes and now these.

  • Cecilia #4

    I truly believe that dan tats will never go out of style. I’ve loved them ever since I was a kid too. I still remember when the dim sum restaurants started to make diminutive one, I was heartbroken because I loved biting into the flaky crust and sweet, supple custard that was enjoyed in three to four bites. I always enjoy reading your blog, but this one really hit home…love the history and nostalgia of dat tats.

  • vanessa #5

    a good dan tat is hard to find! but when crosses my path, it’s a very good day indeed! beautiful pictures, by the way.

  • Sara #6

    This is a lovely post. I have always been a bit afraid to try Chinese egg custard tarts. Thanks for de-mystifying them for me.

  • veron #7

    I wonder if the egg custard tart is similar to the one my mom use to make! The custard looks very similar in texture. I should pay a visit to SF chinatown next time I’m there…will you be my guide? :)

  • Rosa #8

    They look very cute! Those custard tarts surely taste wonderful with a pot of tea…

  • Big Boys Oven #9

    Love the dan tats. You make it looks so tempting …. so irresistable. Can’t just falling in love with them.

  • Amy #10

    My bf adores these! He always requests them when we go to dimsum, and they have to be warm.

  • valentina #11

    Anita,loved reading your narrative here. Nearly felt walking around chinatown with you.And great choice of recipe. I had some lovely custard tarts when in Singapore recently.Very delicate and delicious.

  • joey #12

    We have a couple of bakeries selling egg tarts here…they are yummy indeed and a great snack! :)

    I was in a bakery in our local Chinatown once and your description perfectly capture the atmosphere!

  • Anita #13

    Kat,
    We are on such similar wavelengths – I love the jin dui too!:)

    Rasa,
    That’s great to know – I’ll have to get the name from you when I visit SoCal!

    Peabody,
    Thanks! I love sharing my old stories, just as much as I love reading about everyone else’s stories on their blogs!

    Cecilia,
    Thank you! It’s always so nice to know that my words touched someone out there – and that they have similar fond memories!

    Vanessa,
    Thank you! Yes, when you find a place that makes good dan tat it’s like finding treasure!

    Sara,
    Oh, you must try one! I’m glad I could introduce them to you!

    Veron,
    So lucky that your mom made egg custard tarts for you! Next time you come, I will definitely treat you to some dan tats!:)

    Rosa,
    Thank you! Definitely, these tarts are made to go with Chinese tea-time!

    Big Boys,
    Thank you! I find fresh dan tats to be irresistible too!

    Amy,
    Hot and fresh is definitely the way to go with dan tats!:)

    Valentina,
    Singapore is like foodie heaven – you must have had some great dan tats, lucky you!

    Joey,
    Thank you! Chinatown is a crazy/wonderful place to visit, isn’t it! Glad to find another fan of dan tats!

  • Eddie #14

    hey anita,
    I used to eat these things as a kid but would always spoon out the custard and throw away the crust. What a stupid kid I was. Now I know better. I find that the smaller ones, about two inches diameter max, are generally better than the larger ones for whatever reason.

    I actually like the shops on Clement St. better that Chinatown.

  • ken #15

    The crust is made w/ lard…that’s why it’s so fluffy.
    I love them as well and am fussy about which places to get them at and bug the dim sum cart pushers to find out if they’re warm (they’re awesome warm :-)

  • TJ #16

    the dan tats at that bakery on Grant Ave in SF are to die for. every time i’m in SF, i stop at that bakery at least once a day to pick up a little taste of heaven. i’ve had dan tats in Hong Kong and chinatowns all over the US and Canada – this bakery’s dan tats are hands down the best!

  • Renaissance Clothing #17

    Raspberry Tarts. When I was a teenager my GF worked at the bakery, I would eat 3-4 of these and have to go home and stare at my dinner, my mom was mad until I broke out the tart I saved for her

  • olive #18

    I love eating egg tarts as much as anyone else. happy there is a recent one that opens up in kuching, (east malaysia)

  • Jessica "Su Good Sweets" #19

    Hey there, I too have gone to Golden Gate Bakery based on the recommendations on Chowhound. I thought they were good, but down the street was A A Bakery, and their crust was even flakier. The breads are soft, moist, and have a lot of filling (instead of air pockets). Definitely my favorite Chinese bakery ever.

  • Sentimental Sweets « David Tutera Wedding Blog • It’s a Bride’s Life • Real Brides Blogging til I do! #20

    [...] first dessert that came to mind is the Chinese Egg Custard Tart. My fondness for this treat started back in my early childhood days. Dim sum outings with my family [...]

  • Diane #21

    I enjoyed the Hong Kong egg waffle article. I’ve always loved them.

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