Gai daan tsai challenge: The quest for Hong Kong's best egg waffle
Hong Kong food trends bloom and burst faster than Hollywood romances, but for decades one particular street snack has stood the test of time -- the humble gai daan tsai, or egg waffle.
As far as Hong Kong on-the-hoof eating goes, gai daan tsai is as iconic as a stick of turmeric-yellow curry fishballs, or a paper bag steaming with stinky tofu. Instantly recognizable, the gai dan jaai is a golden cake of miniature egg-shaped balls attached to each other like a piece of oversized bubble wrap.
The origins of gai daan tsai are murky, despite being ingrained in the collective memories of Hong Kongers ranging from tiny tots to wrinkled veterans.
One story says the enterprising post-war generation created the egg-shaped mold to make up for an eggless batter, as eggs used to be a luxury. Another tale points to street hawkers who bought damaged eggs on the cheap to work them into a batter, resulting in the classic golden color of the cake.
It also is reasonable to suggest that the special iron skillet used to mold the gai daan tsai is a Hong Kong take on the traditional checkered European waffle press. Today, the two related snacks are often sold by the same stall.
Hong Kong egg waffles look deceptively easy to make, but attempts to reproduce that street-side flavor at home often disappoint. We usually find ourselves returning to these gai daan tsai vendors for our fix:
鴻記極品雞蛋仔 (Hung Kee Top Quality Egg Waffles)
Hung Kee is probably the only place that will let you taste the product before you pay.
"It’s all in the secret recipe, which I've been perfecting for eight years," says proprietor Mr Lai. "No one can come close to my flavor. I'm sure of it. That's why I'm the only guy who will confidently let you try before you buy."
The egg waffle connoisseur is the son of a gai daan tsai maker and prides himself on his waffles that set into perfect crispness seconds after coming out of the hot moulds.The innards remain light and fluffy but the shell is brittle. What drives Lai's obsession for the perfect gai daan tsai?
"I just want the recognition. I sell maybe around 100 or so a day, so it's not really a money-making operation. But my standards are sky-high. I don't care about the money. As long as I can pay the rent and maintain the best quality I can, I’m happy."
Open daily, 2 p.m.-12 a.m.. Hung Kee Top Quality Egg Waffles, shop A34C, second corridor, Tai On Building, Sai Wan Ho
低調高手大街小食 (Low-key Top Quality Main Street Snacks)
The name's a bit of a mouthful, but stall owner Michael, who only wanted to give us his first name, subscribes to the philosophy of authenticity over gimmick.
"I don't go out of my way to get specific ingredients. I go with what most people use. The most important thing is the result," says Michael. "If the skill isn't there, it doesn't matter how good your ingredients are."
Michael's skill results in egg waffles with a pleasantly chewy, glutinous texture. The foodie confesses that he's "pretty much self-taught," citing the Internet as a source of research before he opened his stall. Not bad for gai daan tsai seller that attracts endless queues of food-obsessed people in Shau Kei Wan.
Open daily, 2 p.m.-9.30 p.m. 低調高手大街小食, shop B3, 76A off Shau Kei Wan Main Street
炭爐伯伯雞蛋仔 (Charcoal-fired gai daan tsai)
While traditional street vendors are slowly, and sadly, dying out, this gai daan tsai mobile trolley often makes appearances around Tai Hang and is a heartening reminder of simpler times.
Unlike the fancy electricity-powered waffle makers that are used throughout the city, 73-year-old Ah Bak (an endearment for "old man," as the vendor is known) uses a frills-free set up of burning charcoal and well-worn waffle moulds.
Having spent 30-odd years of his life selling gai daan tsai, Ah Bak is a bona fide veteran. "There's no secret to my success. Well, maybe one. It's in the eggs. Just add plenty of eggs. In this bucket of batter there are a few dozen. So many places still don't add eggs, they just use custard powder to give it colour. Waffles that don't have eggs are just hollow shells."
His are anything but hollow -- each egg-shaped cake is perfectly filled with spongy cake, the shells just shy of brittle.
But it looks unlikely that anyone will continue to bear the torch for traditional charcoal-grilled egg waffles. Ah Bak used to have two apprentices, but he says: "They both didn't have the patience to learn. They just wanted to earn money quick.
"When I first started, I slowly taught myself to become better and better, putting my heart into it. You can't just learn how to make this overnight. Making gai daan tsai looks easy, but it really isn't."
Open daily, 11.30 a.m.-3 p.m., but times can vary. 炭爐伯伯雞蛋仔, Tung Lo Wan Road, Tai Hang
Mammy Pancake 媽咪雞蛋仔
Mammy Pancake proprietor Mrs Chan grew up in a housing estate in Ngau Tau Kok where gai daan tsai vendors were a common part of the landscape.
She says her egg waffles give a special "mammy" feeling: "Eating it transports you back to a simpler time when you first ate egg waffles as a child."
Chan's love of chocolate eventually led to a cacao-inspired update on the original egg waffle recipe: a mixture of dark chocolate chips is sprinkled into the egg waffle batter just before pouring into the mold.
The result is an egg waffle that bursts with bittersweet molten chocolate. It is a departure from typical chocolate-flavored egg waffles made by merely mixing cheap chocolate powder into the batter.
Show you know the difference and order a "lup lup" chocolate gai daan tsai (egg waffle with chocolate bits).
Open daily, noon-9 p.m. Mammy Pancake, Shop 2A, G/F, Whampoa Street, Hung Hom
利強記北角雞蛋仔 (Lee Keung Kee North Point Egg Waffles)
Ask a local where to get the best egg waffles and nine times out of 10 you will get the answer "that place in North Point."
That place is Lee Keung Kee and Mr Liu is the kingpin of this famous stall. The man started selling street food in Kwun Tong more than 30 years ago.
Liu eventually specialized in gai daan tsai and his egg waffle empire now comprises more than seven branches, with another one about to open in Po Lam.
"Crisp and flaky, soft and fluffy, delicious and addictive," Mr Liu's description of his product rolls off his tongue like a well-practiced tongue twister.
"Our gai daan tsai are here to stay. We're not a fad, unlike pies and tarts, Japanese cheesecakes and those 'chicken wing kings.'"
Open daily, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. but varies between branches. Lee Keung Kee North Point Egg Waffles (main branch), 492 King’s Road, North Point.
Tai O's resident street side gai daan tsai seller is an icon of the small fishing village, nearly as representative as dried cuttlefish and shrimp paste.
Like our Tai Hang hero, he is one of the few who still use charcoal to fire their ovens for an egg waffle with a subtle smoky aroma and a cake-like texture.
To date, he's the top-rated gai daan tsai vendor on local review site OpenRice.
Find him during the afternoons on Tai O's Shek Tsai Po Street.
Dan Gei was commended by So Sze Wong, Hong Kong's loud-mouthed food critic and television personality. It's worth visiting just to witness the buckets of waffle batter being beaten into submission using a modified electric drill. A direct competitor of Hung Kee as they are located near each other.
蛋記太安樓雞蛋仔 Shop A3B Tai On Building, 57-87 Shau Kei Wan Road, Sai Wan Ho