If one were to say that the pastel de nata (or the pastel de belem) is Portugal's most well known sweet or cake, my bet is on the fact that not too many would put up an arguement. Anyone who knows Portugal, or has any affiliation to the country, knows how delicious these soft and creamy on the inside, crispy on the outside custardy cakes are. Just seeing them leaves your mouth watering, am I right? Just look at all of them ...
Surely the pastel de nata is synonymous with Portugal, but you may also be interested in knowing that its populary is world-wide. If anyone has been a great embassador of our little custardy cake, it's the 5 million Portuguese throughout the world. Myself personally, while growing up in Prince George, B.C., Canada, I certainly didn't have the pleasure of going down to a local Portuguese café like our Portuguese-Canadian friends residing in Toronto or Montreal who have their Little Portugal's. We in Prince George were fortunate enough, however, to have among our community, a baker from the Minho region who had worked at the Pasteis de Belem Factory in Belem for 10 years before having moved to Canada. Every Christmas and Easter he made a killing making and selling his pasteis de nata to the community and believe me, they were just as tasty as any you'd find here in Portugal.
On the issue of the globalisation of the pastel de nata, however, if there's one place our custardy representative has really taken off, it's in Asia, especially in countries like China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malasia, among others. It's introduction to the Orient was, unsurprisingly, through the former Portuguese colony of Macau, having then made its way into China where the pastel de nata is know as 'dan ta' or pastel de ovo (egg tart). Today, it is quite common to find 'dan ta' as a dessert option in many fast food restaurants in these East Asian countries. They do look a little different from the Portuguese version but not too far off. Here's what they look like:
Now what is interesting about the globalisation of the pastel de nata is that as this Portuguese sweet starts making in-roads across different parts of the globe, it also starts taking on regional characteristics, even flavours. Again, in Asia, one can now find various 'bastardisations' of the pastel de nata, ranging from coffee, to caramel, to brown suger to mochi (rice cake) pasteis de nata, for example. Have a look at what the mochi pastel de nata looks like:
Interestingly, however, this trend (if you can call it that) is not unique to East Asia. Recently, while in a Portuguese café in the heart of Little Portugal (in the Plateau-Monte Royal neighbourhood) in Montreal, I came across what undoubtedly best fits the description of a 'Canadian pastel de nata' - a maple syrup pastel de nata - certainly a fitting symbol of the Luso-Canadian presence, bringing the two worlds together. Have a look at the maple syrup pastel de nata (which I thoroughly enjoyed right after taking this picture):
Ok now certainly we can look at this and think that it's just not right to be taking something that is so typically Portuguese and making it something that it is not. Well certainly the Portuguese are not too worried. Just recently at this years Chocolate Festival in Obidos they were selling these tasty little morsels - that's right, chocolate pasteis de nata.
So as we can see, in this globalised world we live in today, everything is everywhere and everything's up for grabs. One thing I could certainly grab right now...? Yeah that's right, you guessed it ... a pastel de nata; but I think I'll stick with something a little more traditional, as in a pastel that comes via Belem.