For me, a person born in Texas and raised partly in Hong Kong, something like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich has never really been my thing. It feels foreign ― heavy and dry in my mouth.
When I think of a childhood sandwich that creates the same enthusiasm that PB&J does for many Americans, it has to be a Hong Kong-style sweetened condensed milk sandwich. While sweetened condensed milk (often shortened to just “condensed milk” in other countries, such as the U.K.) is mostly used in the States for candy-making, it becomes a sandwich filling and toast topping in other parts of the world.
Sweetened condensed milk is either spread atop one slice or sandwiched between two pieces of buttered and toasted white bread for a warm and sticky treat, served most often as a part of breakfast or as a light snack at tea time. It’s a common item on any Hong Kong cafemenu.
For a real showstopper, a peanut butter (or cream cheese!) sandwich is dredged in egg, fried like French toast, then drizzled with sweetened condensed milk in lieu of syrup. But my favorite has always been the simplest: cottony soft, white bread toasted for a buttery, crisp exterior with sweetened milk in the center.
For me, this sandwich contains multitudes. From the lowbrow sweetened condensed milk to the most processed of white breads, this sandwich is a metaphor for how the reaching arms of colonialism stretch out to touch everything, its almighty presence creating new trade routes, new cultures, new people. Condensed milk toast, as it is often called, becomes a representation of who I am, where I come from and the circuitous route that food often takes to help shape a national identity.
Today, soft, pillowy bread goes against the grain: Wholemeal, heritage flours and naturally leavened sourdoughs have come into vogue. But bread, particularly the industrially processed kind, has always had a unique place in the history of Hong Kong. The British influence on Hong Kong food culture has been well-documented, and bread was an integral part of that. Bread even inspired an attempted mass murder.
The whitest, most processed fluffy bread is often the most sought after in Asian baked goods and what is used for a sweetened condensed milk sandwich.It is a delight, a comfort to those who know it. For somebody who has a foot in both worlds, Western and non-Western, this bread is often a guilty pleasure that conjures up nostalgia.
But what’s inside the bread is what really counts.
Growing up in my household, we always had cans of sweetened condensed milk for various things ― coffee, tea and obviously, toast. I’d watch my father carefully open the can, tip the tin of milk on an angle and watch as it heaved itself out of the can and into a blue plastic Rubbermaid we saved solely for this purpose. I would wait, hoping he’d let me scrape the can with a spoon at the end. Little did I know, though, how important sweetened condensed milk was to both Texas history and Hong Kong, and even within the cultures of other former colonized countries such as Brazil and Mexico. The grip that canned goods, sugar and flour has had on these places is unsurprising when one thinks about the perishability of fresh foods.