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Foodstuff: Thousand-Year-Old Eggs

Call them what you will … Century Eggs, Thousand year-old eggs, or just Preserved Eggs … for most westerners these are an Asian specialty that go beyond exotic. The appearance, for the uninitiated, can be a little scary – even a little off-putting, maybe – but if you can get beyond the unusual color the experience is well worthwhile and the taste, not at all as strange as you might think…

In Chinese, these delicacies are most commonly known as皮蛋 (pídàn), which translates as ‘skin eggs’ or ‘leather eggs’. Traditionally, the eggs are preserved by plastering them in a mixture of wood ash, salt, lime and some clay as binder and then letting them age for a few months. More modern methods supplant the caustic ‘mud’ wrap with immersion in chemical solutions and the batch I most recently bought at Kowloon Market in Ottawa just lists water, salt and sodium carbonate as the additional ingredients.

In the picture above you can see two styles… the left is one of the one I bought recently and does not have the coating. The other, which is the last of a batch I bought on an earlier visit down south, was made with the more traditional caustic paste and is covered in rice chaff, which, I gather, is used to keep the eggs from sticking together as they dry out during the aging process. The only difference between the two, other than the visual appearance, is that the coated variety has a very definite ammonia odor. Some people complain that this is also true of preserved eggs once they are peeled but I have never really found that myself. The ammonia smell is a product of the curing agents and has given rise to the rather persistent rumor that the eggs are preserved using horse urine…

The preservation process is quite caustic and makes the interior of the eggs become progressively more alkaline as they age. The proteins undergo a chemical change, causing the white to become a translucent dark brown or black and making the yolk turn green or gray. The yolk can be fairly firm or else rather soft and creamy.

The egg in the above picture is the sodium carbonate cured variety. This kind (or at least this particular batch) turned very dark indeed and the appearance is not quite as pretty as others I have seen where the ‘white’ can have a lovely golden-mahogany color.  The yolk is also a great deal darker than it sometimes is and I didn’t notice, until my wife pointed it out, that this particular egg is, in fact, a ‘double-yolker’.

I have to apologize for the quality of the picture here, but I hope you can see that this egg (the coated variety) is a little more visually appealing inside. The ‘white’ is a nicer shade of brown and the lighter yolk makes for a much prettier contrast.

Culinary Uses

The eggs are frequently served alone as an appetizer or Dim Sum dish. They also appear quite often with other delicacies such as sliced abalone, cold meat slices, or pickles, and the like, as part of a cold plate offering at Chinese banquets. One very common way to serve them is an addition to the rice gruel known in English as ‘Congee’, although I have to say that this is not one of my favorite foods at all. There is one dish I have made that pairs with salted duck eggs and is very pretty and delicious. I will be featuring this in n upcoming post sometime fairly soon…

The Taste

Once peeled, the eggs have a slightly sulfurous odor, but even regular boiled eggs carry a slight sulfur smell and it really is no stronger in the preserved kind.  When you take a bite, the ‘white’ portion has a texture very like a firm ‘Jell-O’, and this is true of every ‘Century egg’ I have ever had. The yolks, however, can vary from a custard-like softness to an almost powdery dry consistency like an overcooked fried-egg yolk.

In overall taste, the preserved eggs differ from the uncured kind only in a slightly enhanced ‘umami’ quality, although occasionally there can be a definite, but not unpleasant ‘fishiness’. I also find that, as with regular eggs, when the yolk is soft, it has a slight metallic taste that I do not like. In the eggs we tried on this occasion, the uncoated variety had a very soft yolk, and the coated kind a very firm one.

To be honest, the exotic appearance of  ‘Century eggs’ belies a rather bland and unexciting taste experience. I think that most people, if given a sample whilst blindfolded, might be fooled into thinking they were tasting a regular boiled egg. Still, the texture is somewhat interesting and the eggs are very much worth trying at least once…


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