Entire books have been written on the subject of eggs. Chefs see them as a semi-mythical miracle of evolution – a protein-, fat- and flavour-rich, cheap and infinitely versatile ingredient.
The Chinese have, predictably, discovered more ways with eggs than even the most ingenious French pâtissier. North to south, east to west, coast to hinterland and everywhere in between, eggs – whether chicken, duck, goose, quail or pigeon – transcend cultural and ethnic boundaries, to be enjoyed by the masses and the elite alike in all their forms.
Tea eggs are a particular cult favorite of the street food enthusiast and migrant construction worker. Whole eggs are boiled, then the shells cracked (but never removed) before being simmered in a heady, fragrant mixture of fermented tea leaves and five-spice powder, which leaves an intricate patina etched into the flesh once peeled. A common breakfast staple, tea eggs or cha dan are mildly salty, piquant and dangerously addictive.
Chinese-style steamed eggs are familiar to anyone raising infants in the country. Similar in texture to a Catalan flan, if a little less firm, these wobbly, silken goodies are commonly one of a baby’s first meals. Adults, particularly older people, also regularly whip up a batch for breakfast, topping them with soy sauce or sesame oil and pairing them with steamed bread or onion pancakes.
“Flooded” eggs, more of an acquired taste, are also popular with the older generation – many of whom grew up in households that had to stretch what little food was available as far as it would go. Stirred into a measure of boiling water, these eggs are served as-is, occasionally with soy sauce. It’s hard to describe the flavor as anything but eggy, and the mouthfeel as wet, but these critters, also served at breakfast, are an important reminder that, not so long ago, hunger was everyone’s default sensation.
Top of the list of “hard-to-love” egg dishes, however, are the legendary “century eggs” or pidan, also known as “thousand-year eggs” and, to their many detractors “utterly disgusting.” A step up from salted eggs – which are admittedly tongue-coatingly salty but at least edible to the uninitiated – century eggs are a true test for the senses.
Preparing these green-and-black jewels involves burying fresh eggs in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime and rice husks for weeks to months. The result is an aspic-like, jade-green albumen and an oleaginous grey-green yolk which hums with the scent of ammonia and sulfur.
As with all China’s stinkiest delicacies, century eggs are divisive, but also ubiquitous – sliced into appetizers, stirred into rice porridge and even just dished up whole. The flavor is complex and extremely pungent, with its closest equivalent, to my mind, being Marmite – an equally controversial British yeast extract spread.
I pride myself on my tolerance for weird and wonderful food, but I freely admit that century eggs have defeated me. Even on a trip to Hong Kong, when a local friend took me to the restaurant he claimed creates converts out of even the most skeptical pidan haters, I took a bite of the creamy yolk and attempted to savor it. Umami, check. Notes of blue cheese and preserved tofu. Check. The tang of a public urinal. I’m out.