French in name but global in nature, French toast is the comforting, carby breakfast staple that's easy to make and even easier to eat in large quantities.
What began as a fourth-century Roman tradition of repurposing days-old, stale bread is now synonymous with lazy Sunday mornings and 'grammable café brunches all around the world – as far as Hungary and Hong Kong.
The basic premise is fairly simple: soak bread slices in a mixture of egg, milk, cinnamon and vanilla, fry (in butter, lots of butter) until golden, and top with all manner of delicious accoutrements (from fresh fruit to bacon, nothing is out of the question).
The format lends itself to near-endless remixing and adaptation, which is how we've landed in 2019 at Peak French Toast, with far-flung cuisines of the world offering variations on the theme.
In Spain during Lent, families make torrija with stale bread soaked in milk or wine, honey and spices. Hungarians refer to their iteration of French toast as bundáskenyér, or furry bread, to be enjoyed as an evening snack.
In France, they're not eating French toast but rather pain perdu – which translates to "lost bread", referring to bread turned stale.
And then there's Hong Kong, where the annual consumption of French toast is equivalent to the length of the Earth's circumference. We kid you not.
"Tea houses were serving milk tea and French desserts for the British, but everyday citizens weren't able to afford these luxuries."
Hong Kong-style French toast is one of the main drawcards of bustling tea cafés known as cha chaan tengs, where the lines distinguishing Eastern and Western food traditions are blurred. True to French toast form, Hongkongers dip bread in a lightly beaten egg mixture before deep frying – but here, it's all about the filling.
Classic Hong Kong-style French toast resembles a deep-fried sandwich, where spreads such as kaya coconut jam and peanut butter are encased in bread slices. After frying, the sandwich is topped with a decadent dollop of butter and sweetened condensed milk. It's crispy and sweet on the outside, and soft and chewy on the inside. No wonder Hong Kongers are eating so much of it.
Can they be blamed?
For Thomas Tang of Plus 852 Café, serving Hong Kong French toast to both regulars and new customers is a way of bringing Hong Kong culture to the fore in Melbourne.
"The way we make our Hong Kong French toast is the old-school, traditional way," Tang tells SBS. "We make it with two slices of thick, white bread with peanut butter in the middle. It's soaked in a mix of egg and thickened cream, then we deep fry it and serve it with butter and condensed milk. It's by far the most popular dish in the café – it's how we made a name for ourselves."
Now that Plus 852 has the original recipe nailed ("almost every table orders at least one serve," Tang says), they're experimenting with sourdough and fruit loaf varieties. "We're seeing which one works better," he says.
Tang explains that Hong Kong's love of French toast was born in the era of British rule over the island, when cha chaan tengs were first evolving as Asian-Western cultural melting pots. "Tea houses were serving milk tea and French desserts for the British, but everyday citizens weren't able to afford these luxuries – so they created their own versions. It's how we've ended up with egg tarts and Hong Kong-style French toast."
"The way we make our Hong Kong French toast is the old-school, traditional way."
Merivale chefs Eric Koh, Patrick Frieden and Christopher Hogarth brought this gloriously decadent take into the world with peanut butter, maple syrup and condensed milk. Elsewhere in Sydney, Ching Yip Coffee Lounge in the Dixon Street Food Court and Hong Kong Bing Sutt in Burwood both offer French toast as a snack, available all day.
Hong Kongers (like Hungarians, Spaniards, Americans and Australians) have made this much-loved breakfast their own. Never mind that French toast isn't actually all that French and that its origins are a bit murky – when there's a deep-fried sandwich smothered in condensed milk on the table, provenance doesn't matter too much.
Watch Donal's Asian Baking Adventures with double episodes Sundays at 8.30pm on SBS Food (Channel 33) from Sunday 8 September, with streaming after broadcast on SBS On Demand. (French toast makes a star appearance in episode 2, including his recipe for the classic.)
A few unconventional elements are the secret to this fragrant French toast's appeal - crunchy peanut butter, plum jam and five-spice.
An epic breakfast in shake form. Stack up your candied bacon, banana and French toast and then slather it all in maple syrup.
Breakfast dessert does it again, this time in these Wagon Wheel-inspired rollups. All the right things in one compact roll.
This French family classic, brioche perdue, is traditionally made with day-old bread but now it's often made with brioche as a breakfast treat.
This falls in the Gets Better With Age category. Use day-old brioche for the best results. Also could be filed under What's Not To Love About Bread Dipped in Custard And Fried?
Mexican food is considered one of the world’s first fusion cuisines. This traditional corn cake recipe is normally served cold and here has been adapted so it can be sliced and grilled (broiled) before topping with crispy bacon, avocado and salsa mexicana. It’s French toast Mexican style! Maple or agave syrup can be included in this recipe with fresh bananas, if you have a sweet tooth.
The origin of this famous French dish actually goes back to Ancient Rome. It became popular in France in medieval times when cooks needed to use all produce on hand, such as stale bread – hence the name, ‘pain perdu’, meaning lost bread.