Almost everyone who grew up in Hong Kong has a story to tell involving their younger selves and gai daan zai (“little eggs” in Cantonese), also known as bubble waffles, eggettes, egglets, egg puffs, or egg cakes.
“I was born in Hong Kong, and one of my earlier childhood memories involved getting a rack of freshly made egg puffs from a street vendor in North Point [a district on the eastern part of Hong Kong island],” says Adele Wong, author of Hong Kong Food & Culture: From Dim Sum to Dried Abalone. “Every time I visited an elderly relative who lived around there, [they] would give me a $5 coin afterwards to buy a snack. I always knew what to spend that $5 on, and it was always the best decision.”
In the states, Instagram has catapulted this dish, which looks like a waffle in bubble wrap form, to hyper-creative new heights. It’s often served as a waffle cone or a sundae, with ice cream and lashings of sauce. But it wasn’t always that way — for a long time, gai daan zai were served plain.
Recipes vary, but they generally include eggs, flour, milk, and sugar, and sometimes baking powder or coconut milk. By and large, these were ingredients that didn’t become accessible to the mass market until the 1950s, when industrial food from the west began arriving on Hong Kong’s shores. In the beginning, these items were considered luxuries, which fits the oft-quoted story that gai daan zai were created as a way to up-cycle damaged eggs.
Wong says, “one of the generally accepted origin stories of egg puffs was that grocery stores back in the ’50s put their cracked and damaged egg stock to good use by turning them into a delightful flour-based pastry snack. Eventually, the familiar egg-shaped mold was invented to give the snack a more presentable appearance.”
“My understanding [is] there [were] several versions — I was told [this] by older folks — before it [became] the current shape,” says Caleb Ng, co-founder of restaurant consultancy Twins Kitchen, who has brought bubble waffles to Europe with their Copenhagen restaurant GAO, and events like Milan Design Week.
The shape is quite unlike any other waffle out there, but when you look beyond the world of waffles, and into cakes and pancakes, the mold will start to look familiar — think poffertjes, the coin-sized Dutch pancakes, or, closer to home, bebi kasutera (baby castella), egg-shaped cakes that originate from the Portuguese pão de Castela (now more commonly known as pão de ló), a favorite at temple festivals in Japan. Castella is a speciality of Nagasaki, a port city in the southwest of Japan. It was one of the few cities open to the rest of the world during Japan’s isolationist Edo period (1603-1868), and China has always been an important trading partner, which could explain the origin of the waffle iron.
While little can be found about how the uniquely shaped waffle iron came to be, it’s hard to ignore its similarities with the hot molds used to make baby castellas. To make baby castellas, each indentation is filled to the brim, creating individual, spongy, egg shapes, whereas for gai daan zai, the indentations are intentionally left partially empty to create big pockets of air, and the batter is poured all over the iron, to create a waffle of conjoined egg shapes.
Hongkongers tend to like the “eggs” to be airy and light — “super crispy on the outside, and tender inside,” says Ng.
Back in the day, the waffles were often purchased from push carts on the street — some were licensed, but most were not. Inflexible hawker (street cart) licensing and the gradual and constant crackdown on street food carts from the 1970s to the 2000s meant that gai daan zai almost disappeared from the city. Meanwhile, the rest of the world was being introduced to it, thanks to Hong Kong émigrés. Wong, who lived in Toronto in the early 2000s, says she would come across what she refers to as “the quintessential Hong Kong snack” in the Chinese plazas in the city’s Asian neighborhoods. In the New York Times, there was an article in the mid-’90s about Cecilia Tam, “The Egg-Cake Lady of Mosco Street,” who was selling her “Hong Kong egg cakes” from a simple shack in Chinatown.
In 2011, one of the last gai daan zai pushcarts was forced off Hong Kong streets in a high profile arrest by local authorities, during which around 70 customers and passersby tried to defend the vendor, a man who had been making waffles for over 30 years. He was affectionately known as “Gai Daan Zai Grandpa,” and was well known for using old-school cast-iron waffle irons and charcoal grills. Current food licensing no longer permits the use of charcoal as a cooking fuel, and sellers now generally use electric irons.
While the street carts are no more, gai daan zais have gradually made their way into brick-and-mortar shops, and onto restaurant menus, with a seemingly infinite number of variations. It started with some enterprising food stands changing the flavor of the batter, and later, adding fillings like chocolate chips became all the rage (a popular neighborhood stall called Mammy Pancakes can lay claim to being the first to do that, in 2012). Bo Innovation, the three Michelin-starred restaurant that serves modernist “X-treme Chinese Cuisine,” serves its gai daan zai with jamón ibérico as a bread course, and Seasons by Olivier Elzer, a French fine diner with one Michelin star, offers chocolate gai daan zai with gianduja cream at its Sunday brunch.
In 2014, in a hole-in-the-wall on a side street in the Wanchai area, Winnie Pang created what was possibly the first gai daan zai-waffle cone mashup at her shop, Oddies Foodies. (The shop has since moved to Central.)
Pang says, “Initially Oddies [Foodies] was [serving] themed parfaits and creative eggettes separately. At that time, I had no staff, just me working at shop from opening till closing. My everyday breakfast was eggettes and soft serve, because I had to test the quality before opening every morning. One day, I suddenly realized, why sell them separately when they taste so good together. That’s when Nightwolf [their first waffle cone] was born.”
Earlier this year, there was even a gai daan zai festival to fete these new takes on the beloved street treat. “Egglettes have long been a popular street snack in town, and have been seeing a bit of a revival, and upgrades, but no one seemed to have put all the different types of egglettes in one place,” says Mark Tung, director of Lee Gardens Association, who organized the “Egglettes Festival” in March this year. More than 25,000 people turned up to the two-day event, where attendees ate versions flavored with matcha and chocolate, but also more envelope-pushing additions like Chinese sausage, chicken, and bonito flakes, all while taking selfies on a gai daan zai-shaped sofa.
Instead of resenting the copycats, Pang, a native Hongkonger, is extremely proud that her creations have propelled the waffle’s fame worldwide. “A few years back, not [many] people outside Asia would have heard of gai daan zai. [Even if they had] maybe only Chinatowns would sell them, and it would only be the plain gai daan zai. Now in a short few years, gai daan zai is not a strange thing to them anymore.” That it’s no longer strange is an understatement — it seems to have pretty much conquered the world.
Where to find gai daan zai in Hong Kong:
Oddies Foodies | G/F 45 Gough Street, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2750 2111; website
Master Low-Key Food Shop | G/F Shop B3, 76A Shau Kei Wan, Shau Kei Wan Main St East, Hong Kong, +852 6601 5300; website
Modos | G/F Shop A1, 174 Fa Yuen Street, Mong Kok, Hong Kong, +852 2833 5618; website
Mammy Pancakes | G/F Shop K1B, 36 Man Tai St, Hung Hom, Hong Kong, +852 5422 8832; website
Janice Leung Hayes is a Hong Kong-based food writer, you can find her at @e_ting on Instagram and Twitter.
Editor: Daniela Galarza is a senior editor at Eater.