Friday, May 11, 2007

Century Eggs

Century egg, also known as thousand-year egg or pidan, is a type of preserved egg that is a Chinese delicacy. Unlike the name suggests the eggs are not hundreds of years old but rather only a few months old. Traditionally they were made by coating chicken or duck eggs in clay but nowadays the eggs are preserved with an alkaline mixture of salt, tea, lime, and wood ash. The preservation process results in the most peculiar metamorphosis. The shell looks speckled and aged making the egg seem like it's been buried for hundreds of years. The white becomes an amber colored jelly-like substance occasionally decorated with patterns that resemble snowflakes or pine tree branches. The yolk transforms into a grayish jade, creamy center. For the most part the white is tasteless but provides a springy texture to the soft yolk that takes on a pungent, savory, earthy, almost cheese-like flavor.

Century eggs are definitely an acquired taste. When I was young, my sensitive palate did not like the strong flavors of the egg yolk, which some would say is the best part, so I only ate the white. Now that I’m older, I love the yolk as well. Since century eggs are a delicacy, they are served in small quantities as an appetizer course. These eggs are also added to rice congee for century egg congee, a very popular breakfast dish. A Shanghainese dish, century egg tofu, combines the eggs with silken tofu.

Because the eggs give off an ammonia smell there is a myth that once upon a time, horse urine was used in making these eggs. However this is just a myth because horse urine is actually a bit acidic whereas you need an alkaline substance for the preservation. Sometimes lead oxide, an extremely dangerous neurotoxin, is used to speed up the preserving process. When buying these eggs, look for packages that clearly state no lead oxide. If the eggs have no clear statement, to err on the side of caution, avoid the eggs from China entirely. The eggs should be refrigerated and can be kept for a month. However, I have kept these eggs for several months in the fridge with no ill effects.

Century Egg Congee
Century Egg Tofu

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