Growing up in San Francisco, brunch meant dim sum. And dim sum meant a few staples: har gow (shrimp dumplings), siu mai (pork and shrimp dumplings), cheong fun (rice noodle rolls) and for the last dish, dan tat. Dan tats, or little egg tarts, were my favorite, and the whole reason I put up with my parents’ strong need to fight the traffic on Jackson street in Chinatown to have dim sum on the weekends. Made of eggs, sugar and vanilla, and encased in a flaky pastry, creamy dan tats were, to my 10 year old self, as good as Twinkies. For me, dan tat was the perfect embodiment of my bicultural self – yellow on the inside, flaky white crust on the outside.
I’m in Portugal now, and what do I see everywhere but my beloved dan tats. Only they aren’t dan tats. They are Pastel de Nata. Or so the locals and guidebooks tell me. The original egg tart. The one that spawned such happiness among the Chinese residents of Macau, the former Portuguese colony, that they copied the original, adapting it to their tastes. A bazillion copies later, we have the dan tat, itself endlessly copied and ripped off from one dim sum joint to another.
But I have a confession: I like the copy better. It’s what I’m used to. The original feels too sticky, too sweet, too buttery. I don’t like the way my front teeth are coated after every bite. For me, the Chinese version – light and clean tasting, remains the standard by which I judge all egg tarts.
This made me think of the concept of simulacrum, a concept of interest to Plato and Nietzsche. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard argues that a simulacrum is not a copy of the real, but becomes truth in its own right – the hyperreal. Yet most philosophers, including Baudrillard, viewed the copy as inferior to the original. Gilles Deleuze argues that simulacra can be the avenue by which accepted ideals can be challenged and overturned.
My early life included many encounters with copies that my young self didn’t know were copies. My immigrant parents didn’t have the money to take us on big vacations. So we packed up the car and went to Disneyland, where New Orleans square became my reference point for Creole culture. We spent long weekends in Vegas, where the Luxor stood in for a trip to Egypt.
As I grew older and started traveling the world on my own, I went to places like Hanoi, where I marveled at French architecture for the first time. And Calcutta, where I had my first English afternoon tea at a 5 star hotel.
But as I traveled the world more and encountered the originals, I realized how the copies had become my original reference points. The real French Quarter is magical, but just a tad less so than Disney’s version. When I finally had high tea in London, I missed the curry puffs at the Oberoi in Calcutta. Paris is Paris, but I admit the boulevards seem incomplete without the groups of Vietnamese schoolgirls wearing flowing white ao dais, looking like angels against the mustard yellow colonial buildings.
So here’s to the copies. The colonial versions. The recreations. The distortions. The mass marketed versions. Here’s to being okay saying that seeing the world this way is also seeing the world, no lesser, no less authentic, no less real. Here’s to you, my beloved dan tat. I’ve now been to Portugal and stood in line and eaten the famous Pastel de Nata, the one everyone says is the real deal. Yes, it is a beautiful thing. But you, my dan tat – you are my first love, and that place in my heart is eternal.