The Art of the Tart: Macau’s 'Jagra de Ovos'

Staff Writer
The smell of this sweet treat lines the streets of Macau
Egg tarts
David Ressel
These delicious egg tarts reflect Macanese history.

Within the tiny Chinese enclave of Macau are bustling walkways tiled with the same mosaic cobblestones of Lisbon, belying its Portuguese heart. Along these pathways, the aromas and tastes from bakeries, street stalls, and cafés are imbued with the burnt-toffee aroma, sweet custardy taste, and flaky strata of puffy crust seared with a crème brûlée crown, creating Macau’s signature sweetmeat: the jagra de ovos, or egg tart, that stems from the traditional Portuguese pastel de nata.

Macanese is the unique Chinese-Portuguese cuisine and culture that evolved more than 450 years ago from a South China Sea colony, spice market, and trading port-of-call to the glittering gambling oasis that is now a destination to more than 28 million tourists last year, according to Macau Government Tourist Office. That fusion inspired a hybrid of traditional Western recipes with Eastern elements to create a craze for egg tarts in the east, and an easy gamble for those looking for a delicious symbol of cultural identity.

Portuguese egg tarts go back to pasteis de Belém, a pastry first sold in 1837, at a convent near Belém Tower in Lisbon. Imitations of this secret recipe of egg tart, dusted with cinnamon, followed Portuguese explorers through out the world, including the kitchens, hotels, and governor’s mansions of Macau.

Yet, it took an English immigrant, Andrew Stow, who had opened a tiny Western-style bakery called Lord Stow’s Bakery, — due to his nickname — in the quaint village of Coloane on Macau’s southernmost island, in 1989, to bring the egg tart to the public. After tasting a Portuguese egg tart with his then wife Margaret Wong, a Macanese native, Stow marketed and adapted his own version of the egg tart in 1990 that appealed to local and regional tastes. Soon, the tourists caught on and a pilgrimage to Lord Stow’s unassuming patisserie on a serene square surrounded by tiled roofs, temples, and two-story villas became a popular activity. 

In 1999, the Portuguese officially turned over Macau to a Chinese regime of "One country, two systems." During the transitional era, the residents of Macau, who were predominantly ethnically Chinese started to evolve, affirm, and establish more of their own cultural identities, including the cultural establishment of the mixed Macanese, Portuguese, and Filipino residents — including their food and foodways. Concurrently began the explosive growth of the egg tart as a Macanese cultural icon, eventually selling thousands a day at Lord Stow’s bakery alone. A trip to Macau was not complete with an egg tart, not mention a gift package to bring home.

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