Tuesday, 12 January 2010

food for thought

One of my favourite Chinese delicacies is the dan taat (egg custard tart). They were also a favourite of Fei Pang (Fatty Patton, the last colonial governor of Hong Kong) and probably go some way towards explaining the latter’s corpulence. However, a dan taat is quite unlike the egg custard tarts found in many English cake shops, which are several hours old, cold and usually sprinkled with nutmeg. It is almost impossible to buy a cold dan taat, because the traditional Chinese bakeries that produce these things sell out within minutes of a new batch coming out of the oven, because this is the best time to eat them!

Unfortunately, there has been a trend over the past decade for the dan taat to be made with puff pastry, because, so I’ve been informed, “Hong Kong people like puff pastry”. I don’t. So when I talk about a dan taat, I’m referring to the original type made with shortcrust pastry, which when hot crumbles like a biscuit. Not many bakeries now make this type of dan taat, so whenever I find one that does, a mental note is made for whenever I’m next in that locality.

The question then arises: how many do you buy? This seemingly straightforward question turns out to be trickier than you might think, but the short answer is two. Why? Well, if you were to buy only one, you would soon discover that you enjoyed it so much you wished you’d bought more; but if you bought three, you wouldn’t enjoy the third one as much as you enjoyed the first two.

I sometimes wonder whether Chris Patton observed this rule, which I call the dan taat principle and which turns out to be applicable to a wide range of consumer choices where the enjoyment comes in discrete quantities. Take oysters: people often order half a dozen, or even a dozen, but I find it hard to believe that the pleasure taken remains constant between the first and last oyster eaten.

The principle can also be applied to vacations. You might well return to a place where you had a truly magical holiday, but if you go back a third time, you will notice that the magic has become a little tarnished. The contrast between the excitement of the exotic and the sheer mundanity of the daily grind is the only reasonable motive for someone to return to the same holiday destination year after year. It’s either that or simply habit.

For a more esoteric application of the principle, take the case of hallucinogenic drugs, especially DMT (dimethyltryptamine), which was described by Timothy Leary in the 1960s as “the lunchtime trip”, lasting as it did only 15–20 minutes. I was informed at the time that you would try it once, and because the effect was so intense that you simply couldn’t believe it, you’d try it a second time. But then you’d never try it again. I never did try it, but I understand perfectly well what my informant meant.

By the way, glutton that I am, when it comes to the dan taat I often buy three, even though the third doesn’t taste as good as the first two.
• • • • •
Do you like Chinese food? This is actually a completely fatuous question, like asking whether you enjoy watching football. It depends on whether or not it’s a good game. There are plenty of examples of football matches that are terminally boring for even the most ardent of fans. And so it is with Chinese food.

And so it is with lor mai gai (literally, ‘sticky rice chicken’), a large dumpling of glutinous rice with pieces of chicken wrapped in a lotus leaf and steamed, and another of my favourites. In the mid-1990s, my wife and I used to go frequently to Maxim’s restaurant in Tsuen Wan, an industrial town in the New Territories, for breakfast. At that time, Maxim’s produced the best lor mai gai in Hong Kong.

The quality that set this lor mai gai apart was the ingredients. The chicken came in big meaty chunks, and each dumpling also contained a slice of abalone, a piece of lap cheung (Chinese sausage), a quail egg and dried Chinese mushrooms. But then the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s began to bite. The first thing to go was the abalone, followed a few months later by the lap cheung. Then the egg and mushrooms disappeared. Finally, those meaty pieces of chicken were replaced by the mid-joint of a chicken wing.

Why? Maxim’s could easily have raised the price and kept all those expensive ingredients, but, as I heard frequently at the time: “Why pay $20 for lor mai gai when I can get it at Tai Ka Lok [a local Chinese fast-food chain] for $10?” In the end, there was no difference between the lor mai gai from Maxim’s and that from Tai Ka Lok, and the wonderful but more expensive version of this delicacy that we’d enjoyed in Maxim’s is now a distant memory.

Which brings me to the lor mai gai principle: when deciding to purchase a given item, most people judge that item on relative cost and ignore relative quality. And that, ladies and gentlemen, should give you food for thought.


  1. Very interesting Dennis and it did indeed make me think.

  2. Although my heritage is Singaporian, I can certainly appreciate exactly what you have said.

    Its the aged old saying "you get what you pay for".

    Appie Queen
    PS I love your spot here Dennis, (your blog)always something interesting to read! I love your views on Hong Kong, you take me directly back to many years ago when we vacationed there.

  3. Food for thought indeed! I find myself at a loss in our new little town. No access to quality ingredients, definately no access to any sort of an exotic ingredient. Keeps me limited in my culinary adventures!
    I do agree with your rule though. Two is just enough for a treat or an indulgence. Any more than that is just driven by greed not pleasure! At least for me anyhow!

  4. I love the traditional dan tatt with shortcrust pastry, too. Truly speaking, new or modify stuff, especially food, may not always better than the old one.


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