Monday, 14 May 2018

dan taat theory

Although I’m a huge fan of Chinese food, I’m bound to say that I’m not impressed with Chinese desserts. With one exception. One of my favourite Chinese delicacies is the dan taat (egg custard tart). They were also a favourite of Fei Pang (Fatty Patton, the last colonial governor of Hong Kong) and probably go some way towards explaining the latter’s corpulence. However, a dan taat is quite unlike the egg custard tarts found in many English cake shops, which are several hours old, cold and usually sprinkled with nutmeg. It is almost impossible to buy a cold dan taat, because the traditional Chinese bakeries that produce these things sell out within minutes of a new batch coming out of the oven.

Unfortunately, there has been a trend over the past decade for the dan taat to be made with puff pastry, because, so I’ve been told, “Hong Kong people like puff pastry”. I don’t. In any case, this is probably bullshit. The traditional dan taat is made with shortcrust pastry, but when hot it crumbles like a biscuit, and if you’re not careful, you will end up with half of it on the floor. Puff pastry, on the other hand, has greater structural integrity and is therefore much less likely to disintegrate in your hands, but it is tasteless rubbish, which is why until a couple of weeks ago I hadn’t had a dan taat for several years.

However, Paula and I were cycling in the Shatin area when she suggested that we check out a bakery in Tai Wai, just a few kilometres further south. A few kilometres is neither here nor there, because at one time we used to visit this bakery from Fanling just for its egg custard tarts, a round trip of about 50km. Anyway, I would keep an eye on the bikes while Paula went to buy the dan taat. How many would I like? Two, of course!

This is what I’ve frequently described as ‘the dan taat principle’: if you were to buy only one, you would soon discover that you enjoyed it so much that you wished you’d bought more; but if you bought three, you wouldn’t enjoy the third one as much as you enjoyed the first two. It applies to any pleasure that comes in discrete quanta. Oysters spring immediately to mind. Why anyone would order half a dozen, let alone a dozen, is beyond my comprehension.

If you think that this is an over-simplified analysis, then you would be correct. Paula returned from the bakery with a box of six dan taat! And as we were eating, Paula brought up the subject of ‘dan taat theory’. Of course, she had misremembered that it was only a principle, but it got me thinking that there was more to the question than I’d originally postulated. In this case, Paula bought six simply because although individual tarts were $5 each, she could buy three for $13.50. And while I may not have enjoyed the third one quite as much as the first two, it was still bloody delicious.

In other words, dan taat theory states that the conventional answer to a question may not be entirely convincing. The example that came to mind at the time was this: how do you share a cake between two people such that both are satisfied with their share? The conventional answer is that one person cuts the cake, while the second has first choice of the two pieces. However, many years ago, I had a friend with whom I shared a passion for quasi-mathematical puzzles. Whenever we came to a situation where something like a cake was to be shared, it was simply a question of who was quicker to say: “You cut, I’ll choose”. Because whoever cuts the cake is at an immediate disadvantage. There is a similar question relating to how one shares a cake between three people, but the cutter is at a much more severe disadvantage in this scenario, so I won’t elaborate on possible answers. I don’t believe there is one that’s completely fair.

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