A sign for Yemas de Ávila or Yemas de Santa Teresa in Ávila, Spain (2015)
When I arrived in the town of Ávila, Spain, I had some idea of what to expect. The centuries old stone village surrounded by a massive wall is a World Heritage Site not far from Madrid, that in itself is reason enough to visit. As I walked the streets of Ávila though, I saw a number of signs for something I had never seen before, something called Yemas. The signs themselves were of all shapes and sizes but each one depicted the same thing, a bright yellow sphere wrapped in a paper baking cup like a cupcake. I chose one of the shops open at the time and bought a box of half a dozen of these mysterious spheres, each one about the size of a large marble. As I bit into one, not knowing what to expect, I had one of those Ratatouille moments. I knew exactly what this was! I had tasted it before… in Thai Town, Los Angeles.
You see Yemas or Yemas de Ávila or Yemas de Santa Teresa as they are sometimes called are made from basically two things, egg yolks and sugar syrup. These two items are stirred together in a pot with a copper interior (which helps keep the sugar from crystallizing) until they reach the desired consistency. Think of the texture of soft-ball stage sugar mixed with egg yolk custard. They are then rolled into spheres and dusted with powdered sugar. The story goes that Yemas were invented either at a local convent or by a local baker in honor of Saint Teresa. The odd thing is, they are nearly identical to a Thai dessert (kanom) called tong yòt or tong yod (ทองหยอด), aka “golden egg yolk drops”. These are made by dropping spheres of sweetened egg yolk mixed with starch into sugar syrup boiling in a brass wok.
How is it possible that such a seemingly unique item can co-exist simultaneously in such disparate cultures? I have two words for you, the Portuguese. As anyone who has ever bitten into a Portuguese egg tart or Pastel de Nata can tell you, the Portuguese are egg yolk masters. Add to that, ancient world travelers. This same basic item can be found at your local dim sum joint in the form of the Cantonese egg tart (蛋塔), generally considered Portuguese in origin. When it comes to sweetened egg yolk pastries, it would appear the Portuguese spread their knowledge particularly far and wide. Thin egg strands known in Portuguese as fios de ovos likely spawned Spanish huevo hilado, Japanese keiran somen (鶏卵素麺) and the Thai “golden threads” (foy tong / ฝอยทอง) in the middle of your kanom buang. Portuguese Ovos Moles de Aveiro, egg yolk dumplings molded into various shapes, are more or less Thai tong yip (ทองหยิบ) or tong àyk (ทองเอก). There’s even a Filipino version of Yemas, no doubt tracing to the same Portuguese origin, perhaps with a short detour through Spain.
In fact, if I had a dollar for every time my research into some food item ended with “introduced by the Portuguese”.
I could have bought a-lot more Yemas in Ávila.