My first trip to Hong Kong that I remember happened when I was in fourth grade. (My very first time to Hong Kong, I was only a few months old, and therefore have no memories of that trip – a shame, as my maternal grandmother passed away shortly afterwards). When I went again as a fourth-grader, my mother took my sister and I down to the twisty streets of Yau Ma Tei and stopped at a streetside cart where a elderly man was spooning batter into what looked like a handheld waffle maker held over a charcoal grill. In a few seconds he turned out a golden, bubbly sheet into a paper cone and handed it to me.
This was my introduction to eggettes, a classic Hong Kong street food. Like most street food, they taste best seconds after they’ve been handed to you by the vendor. Crisp on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside, it’s like bubble wrap made of cake, and pulling off the individual “eggs” affords a satisfaction akin to popping the little bubbles on bubble wrap. The Chinese name, daan jai or gai daan jai, literally translates to “little eggs”, which is what the treat resembles, although somewhere along the way someone came up with the much catchier name “eggettes.” Eggettes became one of my and my sisters’ favorite things to eat in Hong Kong, and every time we’ve returned, we keep one eye open for a eggette stall every time we step outside.
Doing a quick survey of fellow Hong Kongers, I discovered that many of them have similarly strong childhood memories of eggettes. It speaks to the enduring appeal of this simple treat that even in fad-obsessed Hong Kong, eggette stalls can still be found everywhere, their recipe virtually unchanged. Only in recent years as eggette stands have opened up in malls and food courts (here in the Bay Area, there is a Chinese snack shop near my home named, quite simply, Eggettes), has this snack began to show signs of modernizing. Now there are a menu’s worth of flavors, from matcha to red bean to chocolate, and they are served with fruit and whipped cream, crepe-style.
If you go to a traditional street vendor, though, who’s still making his wares on the same iron pans he’s used for years, chances are they still only make one flavor – original. And to these veterans, that’s the only flavor necessary. Eggettes are one of the truest street foods: not meant to be fancy, trendy, or gussied up, but something you can buy on a whim and enjoy completely and simply, while you’re walking in the crowd.
For the longest time, eggettes were only bought outside and never made at home; why bother when you could buy them for so cheap from a master who’d been making them his whole life? But never underestimate enterprising foodies: with the metal molds to make eggettes easily found, many foodies decided to try making them at home. Williams-Sonoma must have caught wind of this trend, as they and Nordic Ware released a version of the eggette pan early this year.
This is what I used my gift card from Williams-Sonoma for – a lovely nonstick cast-aluminum pan made of two plates that hinge together. It works pretty much like a waffle maker except it’s heated on the stove: fill one half with batter, place the other half on top, and cook to golden doneness.
I really like the design – it’s economical, efficient, and it works. Heaven knows I don’t need another bulky single-purpose electric appliance in my kitchen, so the fact that it’s just two flat plates makes it easy to store. And easy to clean – since the two plates interlock to cook and come apart to wash, there are no odd crevices that you can’t reach.
The pan comes with a recipe, but from reading it, I could tell that this wasn’t quite the recipe for Hong Kong eggettes. It looked more like a waffle batter; in fact, it’s sold as an “egg waffle pan”, but I really wanted to make eggettes the way I remembered them. A little digging online produced several leads that I adapted to this recipe I used.
Traditional eggettes are meant to taste, well, eggy – not too sweet. They should have a soft, sponge-cake like texture on the inside and a crisp shell on the outside from the hot metal plates – this contrast is one of its greatest pleasures. The recipe I worked with uses custard powder, tapioca starch, and evaporated milk to achieve the right texture and flavor along with sugar, eggs, flour, and a little baking powder for rise.
Custard powder, for those unfamiliar with it, is an English invention. It’s basically vanilla-flavored cornstarch or cornflour, and is combined with sugar and milk to form a custard-like filling – kind of like a version of instant pudding. I’m not surprised that Hong Kong, being a former British colony, would have adopted custard powder; if you can’t find any here (I found some at a Chinese market, and some specialty groceries may have it -the most well known brand is Bird’s), you can try substituting vanilla pudding mix, or cornstarch.
The pan worked really well; having tested my share of underperforming equipment over the years, I was really pleased with how easy – fun, even – this was to use. The batter takes minutes to put together, you heat the plates on the stove, pour batter on one plate, shut plates together, and for about 5 minutes, turning once like those Belgian waffle makers. The finished sheet of eggettes turns out perfectly, even on the very first try. Color me impressed. Tastewise, these brought me right back to Hong Kong: golden crisp shells, soft, slightly-vanilla flavored centers. I came close to ruining my dinner in taste-testing these guys.
Although I had to make original flavor for original’s sake, I did play around with a few variations, since after all I am an ABC! There is a version with cacao nibs and tiny chocolate bits that melt into burst of liquid chocolate when you bite it -this is for my middle sister, who is celebrating her first Mother’s Day today – hi sis! There is also a flavor combination that was quite popular in Hong Kong last time I went – matcha with sesame seeds. I liked the slightly bitter edge the green tea gave, as well as the crunch of the seeds. Who knows what flavor they’ve moved onto there by now!
Thanks Williams-Sonoma and Nordic Ware for the great little product. And thanks to my mom, for sharing this beautiful, timeless piece of Hong Kong’s food culture with me. Happy Mother’s Day, mom! I love you.
The recipe I used was adapted from this site. For the eggette pan, which is about 10 1/2″ wide at its widest, I used just over 3/4 cup of batter – too little and you can’t fill all the openings, but 1 cup definitely overflowed the pan when I shut the plates. The recipe will make about 3 batches. I meant to try this in a waffle maker, for those of you that don’t have access to an eggette pan; I ran out of time to make more batter, but I suspect it will work pretty well, especially in a Belgian waffle maker.
Hong Kong Eggettes (Daan Jai)
- 1 cup (5 ounces) (140 g) flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (7.5 g) baking powder
- 1 tablespoon (14 g) custard powder
- 2 tablespoons (28 g) tapioca starch
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup ( 220 g) sugar
- 2 tablespoons (28 g) evaporated milk
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) water
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons (28 g) vegetable oil
- Optional: 1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate, chopped in fine bits + 1/2 cup cacao nibs
- Optional: 1 1/2 teaspoons matcha powder + 3/4 cup toasted black sesame seeds
- Whisk the flour, baking powder, custard powder, tapioca starch, and salt together in a small bowl and set aside.
- Combine the eggs and sugar in a medium bowl and whisk together until smooth.
- Add in the evaporated milk and water and whisk to combine.
- Add in the flour mixture and whisk to combine, making sure that all the lumps are whisked out and the mixture is very smooth.
- Add in the vanilla extract and vegetable oil and whisk to combine.
- Cover the mixture and refrigerate for an hour to let thicken.
- Spray each eggette plate with nonstick cooking spray and heat on a stove burner at medium until just hot - you don't want it scorching or the batter will cook too quickly when it hits the pan.
- You can stir in any add-ins like the ones I listed above at this point, right before cooking the batter.
- Pour about 3/4 cup of batter on one plate, spreading as evenly as possible. Place the other plate on top. Flip the pan over to let the mold fill evenly.
- Cook for about 2 1/2 minutes, then flip and cook for another 2 1/2 minutes. After the first trial eggette, you can adjust the heat and cooking time to get the doneness you want.
- Turn the eggette out onto a wire rack to let cool slightly before eating.