Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
It’s a familiar setting. I am 8, maybe 9, seated at a large, circular table. The walls around me are lined with red velvety fabric. The restaurant is loud; dozens of conversations amalgamate in one indistinguishable buzz. The adults at my table practically shout at one another when exchanging words – what these words are, I’m not sure – they’re whatever-adults-talk-about words. Anyway, I don’t mind them. I have my Game Boy, my math homework and my sisters to keep me entertained.
Bowls of congee, a pot of bo lay tea, plates of spicy chicken feet, barbecue pork buns and turnip cakes rotate in front of me. I do not care for any of them. I stare at my Tetris screen, looking up periodically to find that a new dumpling, vegetable or mysterious patty has been plopped onto my plate by my mother. Reluctantly, I stuff the morsel into my mouth, barely tasting it before I swallow. There is only one dish that is worthy of my attention. It is golden, with a flaky exterior, and a warm, sweet, custardy interior. The egg tart. The egg tart is bliss; it is perfection in a dessert.
When the plate of egg tarts arrives at the table, everyone summons my attention. “Ling ling!” “It’s your favourite!” “Dan tat!” They all know of my obsession. Three egg tarts are immediately placed in front of me by various adults. Everyone watches as I inhale one after the other. The childhood version of myself is always happier after eating dan tats. Happiness is simpler during these years.
The sweet, gooey egg tart is a staple of my early dim sum experience. Sometimes, I feel it is the essence of my Cantonese-Canadian childhood.
I am 20. My sweet tooth has evolved into a savoury tooth, but I still can’t attend a family dim sum lunch without having three egg tarts piled on my plate. (“Still your favourite, right?!”)
Other than the occasional visit home to Trenton, Ont., I live in Montreal, where my childhood, my family and my Cantonese culture feel distant. My environment has changed and I have, too. A new obsession has taken shape: Portuguese rotisserie chicken from the restaurant around the corner. It’s moist, aggressively seasoned and piping hot. I go often – too often – and order a half chicken with spiced fries, packed in a styrofoam container. I sit in the park, in the sun, savouring every bite.
The pastry section at the Portuguese place is normally obscured by a long line of customers, but one day it catches my eye. I see dozens of yellow, custardy tarts behind the glass. They look strangely similar to the egg tarts I loved as a child – in fact, almost identical. I immediately go home, open my laptop and enter “egg tart portugese” in a search engine. I learn about the Portuguese egg tart, the pastel de nata. A few more clicks and Wikipedia tells me that “custard tarts derived from the Portuguese pastry were introduced in Hong Kong in the 1940s … via the Portuguese colony of Macau.”
My mother is from Macau, so I already know it was once a Portuguese colony. But why hadn’t I made the connection myself? I brush the question aside and go back to enjoying the delectable chicken leg. After all, life is good when there is good food.
Now, I’m 23. I am different, in ways that are small and perhaps unnoticeable to strangers, but impossible to ignore to me. I’m a little more jaded, a little more conflicted, a little more curious and questioning, but mostly a little more disappointed in myself. Everything matters now and I am constantly unsatisfied. There is so much that I do not know.
Among other questions, the origin of the dan tat gnaws away at me. How could the food I attached so strongly to my Chinese identity not be Chinese at all? And what were the chances I’d trace my favourite childhood food back to my mother’s hometown? I feel ashamed for not being more curious about my family history.
My images of my mother’s past life are blurry, conjured up from Saturday-morning stories she used to tell my sisters and me: images of her and her family huddled around a table sharing a single salted egg, but mostly plain rice with a bit of soy sauce; of my mother, my mother’s mother and my mother’s aunt sharing a bunk bed in a tiny, dimly lit room; of my mother packing fireworks by hand as a child.
I imagine the scenes as if they are from a story book, not from the life of my iPhone-loving mother with the frizzy greying hair, who sends me texts with heart emojis and falls asleep on the couch watching the 10 o’clock news.
Perhaps it’s not my fault I didn’t make the connection. My mother didn’t speak much about Portugese influence in her life, or even the fact that Macau was a colony. She only spoke of more intimate, day-to-day details. And yet, I never asked for more.
As if overnight, food becomes something a little different. I grasp that the food we eat reflects family ties, cultural histories and colonial influences. I see that the egg tart is more than just a deliciously flaky golden pocket of custard: It says something about my history, my mother’s history and the place she came from. Funny it should have been my favourite childhood snack.
Lorraine Chuen lives in Toronto.