Pasteis de Belem. So well-loved all over Southeast Asia as the Portuguese egg tarts. When in Portugal, I have to have ’em every day!
The original pasteis tastes incredible! I have a bit of a history with these egg tarts. One of my assignments during the KFC launch in Myanmar was to sample all egg tarts across town (about five bakeries in total in Yangon) and study their price points and diameters. You see, in some parts of Asia Pacific, egg tart sales make up about 22% of the chicken shoppe’s top line during festive times. I find the butterfly effect simply fascinating: monks used egg whites to starch clothes and make pastries with leftover yolk; then separation of the state and the church forced the “conventional” pastries to open market; centuries later, there I was, accidentally ended up with the duty to sell them to unsuspecting Myanmar consumers under a U.S. name. I find all of it wacky and fascinating at the same time.
The week I spent in Portugal also coincided with Facebook’s ban on the derogatory term “Kalar” as a way to crack down on hate speech in Myanmar. Kalar is a term that has sadly evolved to become contaminated with the assertion of extreme nationalists in their hate against Rohingya. While I am ashamed to witness the current episode of history unfolding in Western Myanmar, I have to defend the original term and its cosmopolitan beginnings.
In fact, the word Kalar originally used to be referred to Sri Lankan, Portuguese, French, German, Armenian and Persian travelers to old Burma. Essentially, Kalar used to mean foreign travelers, passing through a much more open nation at the time. In Burmese language, a chair is called a Kalar-Htaing because common Burmese used to sit on the floors and the exotic chairs became fashionable after foreign travelers brought them to common households. For those with Burmese skills, I found this interesting article from a 1987 magazine, embedded at the bottom.
In any case, one Portuguese explorer from Lisboa made it all the way to the tropical palace gates and became what the old Burmese would call a Kalar-Wun (Foreigner Minister), a governor of today’s Thanlyin back in 1500s. He went by his Burmese name, Nga-Zin-Ga, or at least that was the case according to official history text books. One descendant of this 16th century Portuguese community in Myanmar, James Myint Swe, published a book a few years ago – you can find it here.
Today in Myanmar, we are often blind to history and Myanmar’s former self. Being open and warm to foreign visitors and explorers used to be the tradition in the 16th century, and it was acceptable to even assign guests coveted courtly positions. The recent trend of xenophobia – specifically among the educated – is new and quite embarrassing.
Because Myanmar has been closed off, we missed out on an opportunity to lay our hands on the official secret recipe of original Pasteis de Belem, and Thais got hold of it! The Thai diplomats built an open air pavilion (or a zayat) for the Portuguese, still on display near the Belem monastery, and in return, received the official state secret, THE recipe. Original recipe in exchange for a ZAYAT?! I blame my government for many things, but this nearly tops my list.
From 1987 October “Doh Kyaung Tha Sar Saung“: