For some reason, I hadn’t expected as many eggs in China as there are. I’m not talking quail eggs (great soup additions) here, but just plain chicken eggs. You know, the ones we buy in 6- or 12-packs here, that Chinese stores seem to sell in cartons of 65 minimum? Yeah. The Chinese love their eggs.
Eggs come in various dishes, especially soups and fried rice, but almost more importantly, they are eaten plain, as snacks or parts of a typical Chinese breakfast. By plain, I mean that you eat just that, the egg, but that does not mean that you should expect a simple hard-boiled egg without seasoning. Far from it.
Let’s start with tea eggs, called cha dan, which are closest to what a Westerner might expect when thinking of an egg. These come vacuum wrapped with or without the shell on in supermarkets or corner stores and don’t require refrigeration, but many breakfast carts or small snack shacks will have a large pot simmering, from which you fish the egg(s) of your choice still warm, peel it, and devour.
Tea eggs are essentially hard-boiled eggs that get soaked (with the shell on) in a mixture of tea, soy sauce and spices on a low simmer for several hours to days. The flavor will penetrate and stain the egg whites along cracks in the shell, though since this shell-less one was marinated more in the vacuum pack, it’s a uniform brown. This may not look wonderful, but believe me, cha dan are absolutely delicious! I’ll be posting a recipe soon, since these have become a breakfast staple of mine.
Now for something more unthinkable to the Western mind: pidan, or thousand-year-old eggs. These are not boiled, but rather preserved by smearing the shell with a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime (as in quicklime, a caustic chemical agent, not as in citrus lime!), and rice hulls. Despite the name of the dish, this process only lasts several weeks to several months, not one thousand years.
These also come prepackaged everywhere, but the version above is often available in supermarkets as well since it is preserved. They are extremely popular. They are also pretty much black, as the alkaline pH of the preserving mixture breaks down the egg protein, hardening both whites and yolk, producing strongly flavored compounds of a dark color.
Now, this is already a lot to process for the eye, add to it the sulfur/ammonia smell of the whole thing, and it becomes even more interesting. Pidan have a strong flavor that is a bit hard to describe, but not all-together unpleasant. The yolk is more intensely flavored than the white, but I’d say it’s an acquired taste. It wasn’t my favorite of the eggs I tried, but I would eat them again.
And finally, a nameless egg (mainly because I couldn’t find anyone after to explain to me the name) that was a local specialty around Mount Emei, one of the scared Buddhist mountains in China, located in Sichuan province. I got one on our 11 hour hike up to the summit, and consumed it in the sunrise of the next morning. I wish I had known these were local, I would bought tons and tons! I can’t even begin to describe how wonderful these tasted! Similar to pidan, these are preserved, though from all I’ve been able to find out, this process does not involve lime but rather the soil common to the area which appears to be high in salts:
And then, then you take a bite. The white is somewhat gelatinous, but oh, the yolk. It is perfect. Creamy, almost custardy in texture, it just melts on your tongue with a mild, delicate flavour and leaves you craving more:
I’ve asked several Chinese from other areas but nobody has been able to tell me more about these. These don’t appear to come industrially distributed, since they rely on local soils and tastes, and I have been dreaming of these at night, I swear. If anyone has any information for me, please, please leave a comment!
Bottom line: You’ll find these eggs everywhere. I’ve gotten them anywhere from a shack on a sacred mountain several miles away from the next temple and even further from the next village to Carrefour, the Chinese version of a Super Target. They are cheap, easily portable for travelers and don’t require a cooling bag or any preparation, and they are a protein-rich snack that will keep you fueled on hikes through the Chinese mountains. As with any boiled egg, they clock in at 70 kcal.
So, what is your reaction to these eggs? I was very intimidated at first, but was very pleasantly surprised at what I found. Are there any crazy egg preparations you crave?