Happy Chinese New Year! With a Taste of Portugal
Our friend Mary Ellen Griffin aka myMEGusta educates us on the historical roots of Chinese custard desserts:
Some foods have bizarre histories.
Take the little custard tarts they offer in Chinese restaurants. What’s so Chinese about them, and why are they there?
Custard Tarts in Macau
It all goes back to the Portuguese explorers laying claim the island Macau, near Hong Kong and now part of China, many, many years ago. As is normal, they brought food traditions with them, including Pasteis de Nata, delicious custard tarts, for which the city of Belem, near Lisbon, is internationally famous.
Pasteis de Nata in Belem Portugal
The memory of smelling those tarts coming out of the oven on a day trip to Macau several years ago, still lingers. And the taste: Not too eggy, not too sweet, super flaky heaven, as delish as they look in this photo at the bakery.
Jean Anderson, the author of the definitive The Food of Portugal (myMEGusta’s go-to for Portuguese recipes), created a recipe for Pasteis de Nata for Gourmet Magazine several years ago, and you can find it now at https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/portuguese-cream-tarts-108194
But, there’s more to the story.
Sweet, eggy pastries have an interesting past, with a surprising, and huge, role in convents.
Now, these were not convents educating the sweet young daughters of the rich (remember Sophie in Der Rosenkavelier?). Nor were they nunneries, filled with the fasting religious.
Pousada Vila Vicosa
These were the places where single women were sent by the male relatives who wanted them out of the way. If one was poor, she went to a poor-ish convent, perhaps living among the devout or among the little students. If one was rich, she went to a gorgeous edifice, perhaps with rooms for her retainers as well as having her own suite.
And, the rich ones got bored. What to do? Have some dessert. These convents, many of which have now been transformed to deluxe hotels, also known as Pousadas, were full of women, some having taken religious vows, some not, but all enjoying these little custard pies and other eggy pastries as part of their daily entertainment.
Basque Lemon Custard Tart at Ortzi
Custard pastries are, of course, also popular throughout the Iberian Peninsula and Europe. A fine example was recently enjoyed by myMEGusta at a new Basque restaurant, called Ortzi, in Manhattan.
For more on international flakiness (and the first myMEGusta mention of the custard tarts of Macau) go to: https://mymegusta.com/2011/12/12/flaky-times-in-a-flaky-world/
A marketing consultant and devotee of fine dining, Mary Ellen Griffin is also the creator and author of myMEGusta.com, the blog about some of life’s great pleasures: Eating well, and travel experiences – particularly those involved with markets & local foods. Mary Ellen holds an MBA from NYU, an MS in Journalism from Columbia University, and is a graduate of Wellesley College. She has studied cooking at the Lycee Technique Hotelier, Paris, France, via a Craig Claiborne Scholarship, as well as at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.