The tart and science of sailing.

Portuguese egg tarts. Trade winds. Geography. And the history of a yummy pastry and the world’s first global empire.

Portuguese egg tart

 1-Minute NomNoms

How did the Portuguese egg tart make its way from Europe to Asia? And when it (s)tart to happen? It all has to do with the Portuguese Empire of old, which was the world’s first global empire.

Antique map of the Portuguese Empire in the East Indies - 1502 to 1558.

How the Portuguese egg tart traveled East — antique map of the Portuguese Empire

The Portuguese Empire’s colonizers had brought the Portuguese egg tart from its roots in Lisbon to its colonies across South America, to Africa to Asia. This included Macau. The Portuguese egg tart thus made inroads into Asia via Macau and then into Hong Kong.

Portuguese egg tart

Like its close cousin, the traditional egg tart we see in dim sum restaurants, the Portuguese egg tart is made of egg custard. The only difference is the Portuguese egg tart has delicious brown spots on the surface. These are due to the non-enzymatic browning of the sugars and proteins in the custard (read all about the science the 1-Minute NomNom “Wherever you go, go with all your egg tart” and “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a jam“).

The Portuguese egg tart was originally created in Lisbon. Known as pastéis de nata, it was created by Catholic monks at a Lisbon monastery. The monks subsequently sold the recipe, and in 1837, the new owners opened the shop “Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém” to sell the pastry. The business has not only survived till today, but it also continues to thrive (see the video above — they sprinkle cinnamon and powdered sugar over their tarts before enjoying them!).

Cape of Good Hope

But the Portuguese egg tart could travel East only because the Portuguese were the first to find a safe way to sail past the Cape of Good Hope in 1498. The Cape’s storms and rocks had earned it a reputation as “one of the most dangerous stretches of coastline in the world” (and hence the “Hope” in its name), past the southernmost tip of Africa, and onward to India.

Trade winds

The Portuguese could do this because they used the science of trade winds. Ships in the past tried to hug the African coast, slamming straight into the storms and risking hitting into the rocks. The Portuguese chose to sail away from the African coast towards South America and toward the Westerlies (winds blowing from west to east — see blue arrows above).

They could thus sail past the dangerous Cape of Good Hope and into Asia, eventually setting up their Empire in the East. Other European nations soon followed, followed by the Portuguese egg tart.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

(video: Monument to the Discoveries in Lisbon, honoring Portuguese’s amazing
achievements in sailing; how about one for the egg tart too?)


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photos: in order – istockphoto/duncan1890; depositiphotos/leungchopan;jianghongyan; digidreamBy KVDP (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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