Foodstuff: Salted Duck Egg (鹹蛋)
Salted duck egg is a Chinese delicacy that is not especially well known amongst westerners. This is a bit of a pity really, because the eggs are really quite tasty and not nearly as alarming in appearance as the other preserved variety known as ‘Thousand year old eggs’. They are, as the name suggests, nothing more than duck eggs that have been preserved with salt, and they can be purchased raw (like the ones in the box you see above), or pre-cooked (as is the one in the plastic wrapping). The cooked ones are the most convenient in that they can be eaten, or added to some dishes right away, but the raw ones are definitely more versatile…
Traditionally, the eggs were preserved by coating them in a paste of salt mixed with either mud or ground charcoal – and they can still be purchased that way, I gather – but the more modern method is to steep them in brine. The process, which can take a month or two, produces chemical changes in the egg proteins and results in a thickened egg white and a very firm yolk that has a lovely golden hue. Unlike the famous ‘Century eggs’, whose production will be beyond most home kitchens, preserving duck eggs (or chicken eggs) in brine is not terribly complex. I have actually found some interesting recipes for making them in the course of my research and when I try the process, as I definitely will sometime, I will certainly post my results for you.
The eggs, once unwrapped, don’t look particularly unusual. The one on the left (the raw variety) is quite a bit smaller than the other and I was a bit suspicious that it might, in fact, be a chicken egg (although the package clearly states that duck eggs are used). The only real difference I noted was that the raw type had remained quite moist inside the package and exuded a fairly strong aroma of earth and ammonia. The other one, in contrast, was dry and had no aroma at all.
The raw egg, as you can see, does have a very lovely color to the yolk, although this particular one is not quite as vibrant as others I have seen. Some, indeed, are very bright and can be much redder in hue. The white is usually not the yellowish color as in the picture (and is generally more translucent) and it seems as though the yolk has leached its color a little. I don’t know if this happened during the curing process, or else maybe whilst I was cracking the shell.
The interior of the cooked variety is shown above. It is not quite as pretty as other ones I have purchased but you can certainly see that it is quite a bit different in texture and color than a regular boiled egg. Normally, the yolks of the cooked eggs are a more homogenous and solid golden hue than this one, and not quite as unevenly variegated in colour.
The Texture and Taste
I didn’t actually taste the raw egg (while still raw, anyway), as I find uncooked yolks to have a very unpleasant metallic taste. The pre-cooked one, though, was very good. The first time I tried a salted duck egg it seemed to have a lot more of a sulfurous taste than regular eggs but that was not apparent on this occasion. To be frank, the overall taste is not a whole lot different than a boiled chickens egg, except for the saltiness, but there is also a faint ‘tangy’ quality, especially in the yolk. As for the texture, the white part is almost indistinguishable in quality from other cooked eggs but the yolk is quite a bit more granular and, I find, slightly more ‘chewy’.
I didn’t have an immediate use for the opened raw egg so I steamed it briefly to give it a taste test.
The cut surfaces, as you can see, are quite a bit more vibrant in color than the commercially cooked one and the taste, I have to say, was far superior. It had all the taste notes of the pre-cooked variety but was much richer and the saltiness was also a bit more muted. I ate the egg only a few minutes after steaming it and I think that, overall, the hot egg, as with regular chicken eggs, is much nicer than the cold.
One of the most common uses for salted duck egg is as an addition to the Chinese rice gruel known (in English) as ‘Congee‘. They are also commonly used in the Chinese confection known as Mooncakes, where the brilliant golden yolk appears as a lovely ‘moon’ shape when the cakes are cut into sections. One use, which I have tried and especially enjoyed, is as a topping for steamed pork patties. Sometimes, for this dish, the raw egg is just spread over the whole patty, but another way is to spread out the seasoned pork mixture and then make individual hollows in the surface so that whole eggs cook in a sort of nest surrounded by the meat.
In addition to being featured in various dumpling fillings, the raw eggs are also a useful addition to various stir-fries as the salty richness of the beaten eggs adds a lovely depth to sauces. Recently, I came across a recipe where they were adapted to a very western pasta dish that I have bookmarked and would like to try sometime. You can find the recipe here:
Finally, about a year ago, I tried a recipe I found that used both Salty duck eggs and Thousand year old eggs along with regular eggs for an interesting appetizer. I can’t recall where I saw the recipe now but it was fairly simple and I am sure I will be able to reproduce it again. Keep an eye out for this in the next few weeks…