Lost Tastes: Perfect Hong Kong Cakes
These days, Mosco Street, the little hill that runs between Mulberry and Mott in Chinatown, is mainly known for its decent Thai grocery store and the mediocre five-for-a-dollar Fried Dumpling shop. But anybody who lived in Manhattan through the 80's and 90's knows Mosco Street for a different one-dollar-treat: the Hong Kong Cake.
Priced at a modest 15-for-a-dollar, these eggy, crisp, mini cakes were the ideal after-dinner snack for those who wanted something a little better than the orange slices or almond tofu with canned fruit cocktail offered at most nearby eateries. (Our go-to was Sun Lok Kee, sadly gone, or Phoenix Garden, back when they were still in Chinatown and still knew how to properly prepare their once-excellent Salt & Pepper Shrimp).
The cakes came out of a grubby trailer-like storefront with a streetside window where locals and visitors alike would line up to place an order from Cecilia Tam, the Chinatown legend who was known mostly by her street name, "The Egg-Cake Lady."
They were made by pouring a thin, egg-based, lightly sweetened batter into a multi-welled aluminum mold and heating over a single burner. At their best (and the egg-cake lady's were always the best), the little cakes came out with a paper-thin, crisp crust that it shares with the very best waffles. Underneath was a thin, doughy, chewy layer of eggy pastry, with a completely hollow, steam-filled center. My favorite way to eat the was to bite them in half, just to make sure that each cake had the requisite hollowness.
According to a 1994 New York Times article, Mrs. Tam came from a family of cake-makers. Her father raised her and seven siblings by selling them on the streets of Hong Kong.
It's not clear to me that they actually originate in Hong Kong (some people claim they're a purely Chinese creation, while others claim a Western influence—they taste remarkably like good waffles), but beside Mrs. Tam's, the best I've had actually were in Hong Kong.
Mrs. Tam was well-known for her policy of abruptly shutting down the storefront as soon as her daily jugs of batter ran out—often without a word to the line formed in front. Sometime in the early 2000's, she closed her shop in the exact same way, this time for good, leaving behind her a wake of cake-deprived followers, myself amongst them.
Since then, several street carts have popped up in an attempt to fill in the void left on Mosco Street. I haven't found a single one that even approaches the quality of the old stuff, though. They're either missing the crisp crust or the hollow center, or just fall flat on the flavor front.
For now, I count this amongst one of the lost flavors of my childhood‐if someone could point me towards a great version of these somewhere, I'd be forever in their debt!
Who else has a "lost taste"? Something they grew up loving, but simply can't recapture?