The unlikely history of how egg tarts took over Asia.
If you can put the politics and all the baggage aside for a moment, there are some things that the fast food juggernaut just does indisputably well. McDonald’s fries, Starbucks' double chocolate muffin, and KFC’s egg tart. Yes, KFC’s Portuguese-style egg tart, which was actually invented by a British guy in the 1980s in Macau, spread through Asia like wildfire in the 1990s and then sold by his ex-wife and business partner to KFC around 2000, from whence it has gone to every train station, shopping mall and ninth-tier city in China. There is nothing more Portuguese than the egg tart; there is nothing more Chinese than the Portuguese egg tart. This is the story of how that happened.
1998 in Macau. The Portuguese had controlled the island for more than 400 years. Egg Tart Fever had taken hold in Hong Kong the previous year. Everywhere you went, shops advertised the newest and hottest snack to sweep the city – a custard tart with a puff pastry crust that sat somewhere between the Portuguese pasteis de nata and the boring English version, made with a short crust, like a pie, that had found a home on Cantonese dim sum menus. Lord Stow’s Bakery, the originator of this new style, had sparked the trend. After starting in the early 1980s, they now had four shops across Hong Kong and four more across Asia, from Korea to Thailand. Copycats were bragging on TV shows about how much money there was to be made from the trend – the proverbial “golden egg tart”.
And then KFC came knocking. Not on Lord Stow’s door, mind you. Andrew “Lord” Stow, had stumbled into egg tart fame over the previous decade. Stow was a British expatriate who landed in Macau as an industrial pharmacist and didn’t want to leave. He figured he’d start a birthday cake business, but that changed after going on honeymoon to Portugal with his new wife at the time, Margaret Wong. After trying the original pasteis de nata, a small pond of custard baked into a puff pastry shell until the top had turned nearly black with caramelized sugar, he packed 50 steel tart tins in his luggage for the trip home. At the time, the only Portuguese egg tarts in Macao were sad and forlorn versions hidden away on hotel buffets, or secreted away at the Governor’s mansion. Stow figured he might be able to sell a couple hundred per day, enough to allow him to quit his day job but stay on the island that he had fallen in love with.
By the time the execs from KFC arrived in 1999, in the midst of Asia’s egg tart fever, Stow and Wong had already divorced. He kept the Lord Stow’s franchises and she held on to an unassuming café named, simply, Café e Nata: coffee and egg tarts. The executives begged Margaret to teach them the recipe she and Andrew had perfected over the past decade, the one that swapped out the flour-thickened custard and the Portuguese sprinkle of cinnamon for one that Stow, ever the “arrogant Brit” — according to his sister, Eileen Stow — and a scientist by training, had trial-and-error'ed, cutting down on the sweetness but still maintaining the signature black patches of brulee'd sugar.
That first day of business, in 1984, could have gone better. Chinese customers were put off by the burnt appearance and the day’s entire batch sat, unsold, on the baking tray. When I called her café last month out of the blue and asked for Margaret, the reply was “Yea, I’m Margaret. What do you want?” A blunt talker, she chastised me for mumbling and then told me about the first batch of egg tarts. “The customers thought they were burned on top. No one wanted to be the first to buy them,” she recalled. “Andrew said let’s throw them away. I said no, don’t throw them away — let the people eat them and they’ll see. They ate one free, they ate two free. Then they came back for a third one. I said ‘Sorry, now you pay’”. Their business was born.
Lacking a direct translation for “custard” into Chinese, Andrew and Margaret just called them egg tarts. Chinese customers, needing a way to distinguish them from the British-style custard tarts, the ones with a short crust (still made in Hong Kong), started calling them 'Portuguese' egg tarts, creating a confusing taxonomy that persists to this day. Andrew’s sister, a voluble woman with a knack for a story, told me she got involved when on a trip to visit him in 1993, he said ‘These damn egg tarts are taking over my life. Come and help me.’ “If Andrew had a crystal ball,” his sister laughs, “he would have called them Macau egg tarts.”
KFC was not the first company to approach Stow’s ex-wife about learning to produce their now iconic tart. At the height of egg tart fever in the late 90s, all types of businessmen made their way to her café, offering consulting contracts and begging to learn. To Wong, selling off the recipe to any old business person looking to cash in didn’t make sense. “I’d ask them, what do you do?” she told me. “’I sell shoes’. I’d say, sorry, I’m not interested.” But when KFC arrived, it was different. The main executive tasked with getting her recipe charmed her, proving that he could pick her tart out of a lineup of imitators in a blind taste test. And for Wong, it made sense. “I figured, they have the chicken, so they should have the egg too.” She sold the rights for a lump sum (“how much is none of your business”) and in 1999, “Margaret’s Egg Tarts” began appearing on KFC menus in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
By the early 2000s, they had spread to mainland China (now known just as Portuguese egg tarts) and several years after the original trend kicked off, egg tart fever returned. Except this time, it wasn’t Lord Stow fueling the fire – it was KFC. In the past decade, they have introduced the egg tarts across Asia (again), starting with Shanghai in 2003 and eventually covering Singapore, Malaysia and more than 4,000 stores across the rest of China and Taiwan. In 2008, the company built a dedicated egg tart factory in eastern China, with more than 300 employees, to handle just the one item. In 2010, KFC sold about 300 million egg tarts (0 million worth) in China alone. KFC declined to tell me how many it sells now, but they did say they have since closed the dedicated egg tart factory and, in an interesting cocktail party nugget, each store now makes their own egg tarts, every day, from scratch. It is big business. KFC HQ calls it a “signature dessert.”
These days, Eileen Stow and Margaret Wong are friendly competitors, and dueling stops on the itinerary of every tourist to Macau, even if the history may have become a little foggy. (“Egg tarts just as good as KFC's” — a review of Lord Stow's Bakery on TripAdvisor.) Somewhere in there, Lillian’s opened in Shanghai, a chain with the ballsy motto “probably the best egg tarts in the world” that doesn’t seem to have won any respect from the originators. When I asked Eileen about it, she deadpanned “Never heard of them. That’s all I’ll say.” After putting the same question to Margaret, she hung up on me.
Andrew died unexpectedly in 2006, though not before the Government of Macau awarded him a Special Medal for Services to Tourism. His sister, Eileen, keeps the Lord Stow’s Bakery brand going, selling more than 20,000 tarts per day, while his ex-wife peddles her version at her own café. Andrew and Margaret’s daughter splits her time between the two shops and, by all accounts, the relationship between the heirs of Andrew’s legacy is friendly.
To Eileen Stow, Andrew’s path was ‘luck, luck, absolute luck’. “If he had set out to create and adapt the egg tart from Portugal to Macau, it wouldn’t have worked, it wouldn’t have had that joie de vivre,” she says. Nonetheless, he stumbled his way into “accidentally creating an edible icon for a place where he didn’t belong.”
Margaret keeps going. Queues of tourists form outside her Café e Nata coffee shop every day. KFC has experimented various flavors like coconut, yellow peach and cappuccino over the years, but Wong claims that the fast food execs are bothering her again, this time to help them return to the egg tarts purist roots. But she is not interested. The time has passed and she doesn’t have nice things to say about KFC’s innovations. “Now when they call and ask me to show them again,” she says, “I just say, sorry, I’m busy.”