I always have to remind myself that if I explain cheese, that amazing delicious substance I love and cherish from my home state of Wisconsin, it probably sounds rather disgusting to someone who has never had it. Ew, you let the milk go bad and curdle and then let it get old, and then you eat that?? I can appreciate how it might not appeal. So it is with this thought in mind that I resign myself to eat thing that cultures vastly different from my own might put on the dinner table. The Century Egg is one of those food challenges.
First of all, the idea of a “preserved egg” or “hundred year egg” (not literal) is already off to a bad start. Some Americans and others experience an initial shock just to see eggs sold and stored right out there in the open without refrigeration. That might have something to do with the absurdities of our food industry and the chance that one may die from eating a cantaloupe let alone a salmonella-laden egg. So an egg that has been left to age? No way!
Yes way. The blackish/purplish appearance of the no-longer white doesn’t sell it either. Nor the creamy black yolk oozing out onto your plate with tints of green, and a hint of ammonia. (In Thailand, the ammonia smell has brought it the name horse urine egg, though urine would never work to create such an egg as it is not basic enough. And you can sometimes find ammonia in baked goods.)
The egg is preserved over a period of weeks or months while it is sealed in a paste of strong caustic properties, such as quick lime and mud. The paste dries slowly during that time and the basic (as opposed to acidic) nature of the paste permeates the shell and breaks down the complex proteins and fats of a normal egg, changing the flavor and creating a firm jelly-like texture without using heat. Salt in the mixture also affects the flavor. Now that we know the chemistry of this process in the modern age, it can be done more quickly by using more effective pastes.
This form of preserved egg originated in China. Hard to imagine who the first guy was to eat one of these. Oh look, I forgot this egg in the clay or some ashes a month ago. I wonder if it’s any good? Purple, black and green? Don’t mind if I do! Whatever the origin, egg preservation came in handy if you had an egg surplus before the days of refrigeration.
But the truth is, despite all appearances perhaps, the century egg is all bark and no bite. They are, in fact, delicious. A touch of saltiness to them, firm like a hard-boiled egg, but often with a creamy yolk with the consistency slightly more viscous than a soft-boiled egg. (Sometimes it isn’t runny at all either.)
Not at all what I would have expected. But now if I see one in a Chinese restaurant, I don’t hesitate to order it. Goes well all by itself, but is often served in congee (rice porridge) and I’ve had it in Taiwan served with a slab of cold soy with sesame oil and soy sauce.
This preserved egg is also known as the thousand year egg, millennium egg, and the pine-patterned egg (due to patterns that form on it). The Chinese characters for it: 皮蛋
In Thai: ไข่เยี่ยวม้า kai yiew ma (horse-pee egg, slightly rude word for ‘urine’ (but it’s OK to say this), and no, there’s no actual urine involved, horse or otherwise.)
Check out some other unusual eating experiences!