Happy Chinese New Year! With a Taste of Portugal
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?
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.
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.
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.
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/
Lovely story about these delicious pastries. Now I am confused; in Belem near Lisbon all tourists are taken to a pastry shop where supposedly the pastries originated. The guides claim that the pastry shop makes 10,000 a day, but only four people in the whole world know the recipe. Hard to believe. Did one of them centuries ago travel to Macao and divulged the secret? A traitor? What horrible thought! Or perhaps the Chinese had spies and eventually learned the secret? Or even more scandalous did one nun learned the recipe and eloped with a lover?
Whatever the story, the Pasteis de Nata are delicious. Keep writing.
Ah…you always bring back memories!
I loved the Pasteis de Nata when we lived in Lisbon — and am familiar with the Pousada Vila Vicosa (and many other posadas)! What a great way to keep these old structures from ruin…