It took me years to get around to trying the egg tarts from Tai Cheung Bakery after they received Chris Patten’s gastronomic imprimatur, and I wasn’t impressed. But then I’ve never liked the Cantonese take on the Portuguese pastry. The shop on Lyndhurst Terrace, Central, is usually thronged with tourists taking pictures of themselves with these renowned tarts, but if Hong Kong’s last governor hadn’t eaten his on camera, by doing so endearing himself to the locals, Tai Cheung probably wouldn’t be so well known.
The Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) toured the south six times between 1751 and 1784, acquiring a taste for the rich, hearty food of the Yangtze River Delta – now known collectively as Shanghainese – in the process. But tales of the emperor dining at local restaurants incognito were just that: they might even have been marketing ploys devised by the restaurants themselves. What did result from the multiple imperial tours, however, was the refinement and innovation of the region’s cuisine.
To win imperial favour and lucrative contracts, local officials and prominent families competed with one another to entertain the emperor and his sizeable entourage, all of whom were used to fine dining back in the capital. And so there emerged in the Yangtze region an F&B industry replete with celebrity chefs, gastronomes and food critics. In fact, many present-day Shanghainese dishes were conceived or took on their present form during that period.