|My homemade gai daan jai.|
The basic ingredients of this iconic Hong Kong street food are only flour, eggs, and sugar. But there are many variations, and businesses will not share their secrets lightly. The quality between the different vendors can differ greatly, as we discovered first hand, and they look deceptively easy to make. After fail after fail in my kitchen, however, I can assure you that these simple snacks require a high level of skill indeed!
Although there is no definitive answer as to how gai daan jai were invented, most people seem to say they originated in Hong Kong around 1950, as refugees fleeing civil war in China flooded into the city. With a growing population, entrepreneurs came up with creative ways to make the best use of scarce resources under strict government price control. Apparently, back then, eggettes were cooked at streetside carts over charcoal stoves, and sold by the egglet for 1 cent.
Some claim they began as a way for small grocers to use up broken eggs, while others say the egg-shaped mould was used to make up for an eggless batter. Eggs may be less of a luxury these days, but it is certainly harder now to get hold of the more flavourful duck eggs which some sellers used at the time.
Sadly, it is now illegal for most waffle vendors to ply their trade in the streets of Hong Kong. With a goal of public health and safety, government officials stopped issuing new hawker licences in the early 1970s. High profile arrests of traditional but permitless cart holders have provoked public outrage, with commentators lamenting the loss of the city's street food culture.
|Eggette seller cooking over a charcoal stove.|
Makers of eggettes have also largely abandoned the use of charcoal stoves for gas-powered ones, or have switched to electric moulds.
- NEW YORKERS & CO.; The Egg-Cake Lady of Mosco Street (Jane H. Lii, The New York Times, 11 December 1994) - "Mrs. Tam said her father was her inspiration. He had raised eight children selling these cakes in Hong Kong after fleeing China shortly after the Communists took over in 1949."
- Angry Crowd Gathers as Hawker Arrested (Lo Wei, South China Morning Post, 11 April 2011)
- Hong Kong Gets an Unlikely Hero (Kent Ewing, Asia Times, 15 April 2011)
- Hawkers Under Fire (Grace Choi, HK Magazine, 12 Jan 2012)
- 《文化多面睇 炭燒雞蛋仔伯伯》 (NOW BNC, 2 September 2012) - Mr Ng, a 75-year-old eggette seller who entered the trade in 1982, still uses charcoal stoves and shares his recipe with kids; he cannot afford to open a shop, and the government stopped issuing hawker licences in the 1970s, hence the illegal work; misinformation also led to demise of the street-sellers (posters showed them as horrific and dirty)
- 《名廚。食出五味人生》 (i-Cable Channel 12 娛樂台, 9 September 2012) - Mr Ng says that no eggs were used at the beginning; eggettes take 8 minutes to cook; interview with Eric from Gu Fah Bakery, a specialist eggette store with modern flavours, using beer to make the dough rise.
- 《雞蛋仔。香港地道小吃》 (Firewalk Productions, 25 November 2012) - Mr Liu, owner of LKK North Point Eggettes, says his mother used duck eggs in the 1950s; it takes 7 - 8 minutes to cook an eggette; he makes a batch of batter using 400 eggs.
In a previous post, I shared our favourite spot in Hong Kong for eating eggettes. While eggettes from other vendors are frequently disappointingly limp and soggy, those from LKK North Point Eggettes are consistently fresh and crunchy on the outside, with a soft pillow against one side inside. As another blogger aptly describes it, they are addictive, "just like popping bubble wrap".
I would say that excellent eggettes need to have the following characteristics:
- crisp on the outside, but soft on the inside
- the little balls should be interconnected, so you can snap them apart with satisfaction
- they should be evenly lightly golden, with the balls the same colour as the bits joining them together
- smooth shiny surface
- fresh, fragrant flavour
- Gai daan tsai challenge: The quest for Hong Kong's best egg waffle (Charmaine Mok, CNN Travel, 8 September 2010)
Unlike Chinese egg rolls, you definitely need specialist equipment to make eggettes. How else would you be able to mould your batter into little balls?
I wanted something basic, so I purchased a traditional eggette pan from Shanghai Street in Hong Kong. These old fashioned devices are basically made of two metal moulds that fit together, attached to wooden handles. I was surprised to see that the two halves were not the same - the bottom was significantly deeper than the top half.
|Traditional eggette pan.|
|Egg waffle maker from Alibaba and Shentop.|
If you can't get hold of either of the above, then you might want to consider Western-style eggette makers, which don't look quite right because they tend to make completely round balls rather than egg-shaped ones. As before, you can either get these as a standalone pan, or as electric one.
|Nordic Ware Egg Waffle Pan and CucinaPro Bubble Waffler.|
Recipe for the Batter
Depending on what you search the internet for, you will end up with different recipes for gai daan jai. I ignored the ones that were clearly not what I was after, such as those using pancake mix or a sourdough starter.
Looking for "eggette recipe" or "Hong Kong waffle recipe" turned up two basic recipes, with a number of different sites repeating them (sometimes without accreditation!). Christine's recipe provided by Anne Yeung (published September 2010) is the more Asian version and seems to be very popular. It has the same proportions of ingredients as the recipe shared by I Love Cake (video uploaded September 2009), but differs slightly in the method, for instance not using an electric egg beater, adding the oil after the flour (rather than mixing it with the wet ingredients), and letting the batter stand for an hour in the fridge instead of at room temperature. It is also almost the same as Recipe 1 shared on the eGullet forum (posted July 2005). The other recipe that frequently pops up is the one provided by Williams-Sonoma, which seems totally inauthentic, calling for the egg whites and yolks to be beaten separately, and adding unconventional spices in the form of nutmeg.
Search for "gai daan jai recipe" and you get the same top hits, but also a couple of extra recipes such as one from Hong Kong Lightbox (published August 2008). This recipe is nearly identical to the one I found in Fan-Yuk Hui Chan's Chinese-English cookbook 香港特色小吃 Distinctive Snacks of Hong Kong (17th edition published February 2010, first published September 1998), but with the use of cornflour rather than tapioca starch. As a reviewer pointed out, despite the book having an egg waffle on the cover, it "doesn't taste like the real thing". There is also a recipe from Wynwyn's Place, which is given without any description or picture, but has a higher egg content than the other recipes I have seen so far.
Google "雞蛋仔" or "雞蛋仔 recipe" and there are a few more new recipes, such as one given by Yvonne Lo (published July 2010), directly after writing about the Lee Keung Kee North Point Eggette shop—though I am pretty sure the business owner would never give his recipe away. I also found a recipe in Chinese (published April 2012) that was different again, with no evaporated milk.
I think the oldest recipe I found online was one posted in Google Groups in September 2003 by Betty Lee, who in turn was quoting Anna Au (though the address http://www.pipeline.com/~rosskat/wizzab.html does not exist anymore), who had found a recipe in her sister's Chinese cookbook. It had a high ratio of eggs, unlike another recipe from a Reddit forum post, which had far more flour and water.
Searching for videos on YouTube turned up a few more variations. For instance, the eggettes from the Gu Fah Bakery (古法烘焙) are apparently made with beer. Mr Ng, the "eggette uncle" (雞蛋仔伯伯) who was arrested and heavily fined multiple times for selling these delicious snacks (and has now sadly passed away), shares his simpler recipe containing only the four ingredients of egg, flour, sugar and oil - though he also adds a powdery "secret ingredient" as well as water.
I suspect, however, that technique you use has as much, if not more, to do with the outcome than the recipe you choose.
I wanted to reproduce the eggettes of the LKK North Point store, and watched a bunch of videos of their creations being cooked. However, as they use electric waffle irons, I was not able to learn much. Basically, they pour the batter to fill the indentations, then flip the pan once, and pretty much just leave it for 7-8 minutes. This would not work with my eggette mould as I can only heat one side at a time. They then remove the eggette, curve it, let air from a fan blow across it, and put it into a paper bag with breathing holes.
Clearly, I would need to learn from the charcoal stove eggette makers instead. Rather than flooding the mould full, they pour the batter in a spiral pattern to make a thin coating, then swirl the pan around in all directions to distribute the contents. Sometimes I see them wiping down the flat sides with a cloth while the eggette is cooking. They flip the pan 3 to 5 times, and the finished product is ready in less than 2 minutes in many cases. Unlike the ones at LKK, these eggettes just drop out of the mould when cooked. The waffles are cooled flat, and often fall apart when being bagged. I guess they must be delicious and crispy, when people will queue for an hour for them.
I learnt a lot of things in the course of my experiments, other than the fact that the mould is pretty heavy.
Tip 1: Season your pan
NB. Do not do this if you have a non-stick pan! When I first started making eggettes, I brushed oil on to the mould before pouring in the batter. After burning the bristles of my brush by mistake, I switched to the quicker method of using cooking spray. But even though I sprayed between every single batch, the waffles still stuck to the pan.
Eventually, I realised I was doing something wrong, and looked up how to season my pan. I brushed oil onto the cold cooking surface (not forgetting the edges), then fired up the gas burner and heated the mould until the oil began to smoke. I switched off the heat and let the pan cool, before wiping away excess oil with a paper towel, and repeating the whole process again.
Seasoning the pan not only made it easier to remove the egg waffles, it made the browning of the cake a lot more even. I guess you see the same effect when you are making pancakes, when the first lot (where you added oil) has more colour contrast than the later versions (where you are cooking on a dry frying pan).
|Uneven cooking in unseasoned mould, with dark and light patches.|
Oh, and as you will be burning oil during the seasoning process, don't forget to open the doors!
Tip 2: Pick an eggy batter
Mr Liu said that the secret to his LKK North Point eggettes is to use plenty of eggs. At first, I thought this was just a marketing gimmick, just a thing that was mentioned to avoid giving away the true secret of his recipe, and to make it sound like his creations were worth more, being made with more expensive ingredients for extra flavour.
Having tried a few different recipes now, I have to say the ones with more eggs definitely taste better. Not only that, they give rise to a crispier result. In contrast, the more watery batters took longer to cook and had a habit of expanding (presumably from the steam) during cooking.
|These eggettes pushed the two halves of my mould apart.|
1/2 C sugar
2 T butter, melted
1/4 C milk
2 T cornstarch
2/3 C flour
1 t baking powder
1. Beat eggs whilst gradually adding sugar until fluffy.
2. Gently stir in milk.
3. Sift dry ingredients into egg mixture. Fold gently to combine.
4. Stir through melted butter.
5. Grease waffle plate with oil and heat on stove. Make sure plates are hot before adding batter.
6. Fill plates about 60% full with batter and cook over moderate heat for approx. 2 minutes on each side or until golden and puffy.
Tip 3: Pour your batter from a jug
I started off being lazy and just scooped ladles of batter onto the eggette mould. It is much more efficient, and easier to get the batter to where you want it, if you have everything in a jug though, so you can simply pour it as you wish, rather than having some batter cook while you are reaching for another ladle.
Tip 4: Line your stovetop with foil
There are going to be accidents. Batter will drip out of the pan. If you want to save yourself all the cleaning effort later, line your stovetop with foil first.
|Spilt batter - should have lined the stovetop earlier.|
Tip 5: Swing your pan to distribute the batter
You want the little balls to be interconnected. If you just pour the batter into the indentations and don't move your mould around, you will end up with discrete spheres that don't hold onto their neighbours. Swinging your pan will ensure that the batter goes up the sides rather than pooling at the bottom, so that your creation does in fact look like little eggs.
|Separate balls from not getting batter in between them.|
Tip 6: Let it breathe
After cooking, don't just throw your eggettes in a pile. You want to leave them spread on a cooling rack so that the steam can evaporate. You can also help this process by fanning away the moisture.
Final Tip: Practice makes perfect!
Don't give up just because your first batch was no good! Nobody gets it right the first time, and those professionals who make it look so easy have been practising for years!
|One of my failures.|
|Better eggettes made later that same evening.|
Our Growing Edge, a monthly blogging event aimed at inspiring us to try new things. This month, it is hosted by Eva from Kitchen Inspirations.