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Eggs: Fresh and Preserved, Chinese Style
Winter Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(4) page(s): 27, 29, 30, and 32
Eggs are potential reproductive bodies that contain the germ of an embryo. They have the potential of starting another generation. Long a symbol of fertility to the Chinese (and others), these oval balls of nutrition have four basic parts: Shell, shell membrane, white (also called the albumen), and the yolk. The first two are used medicinally, the others for food and folklore.
Chicken eggs are the most commonly consumed eggs, worldwide. The Chinese also eat duck eggs, goose eggs, quail eggs, and pigeon eggs, among those in the bird bunch. They also eat many eggs from animals other than birds. For example, they eat ant eggs and turtle eggs, but not very often. Information about turtle eggs appears at the end of the turtle article in this issue. This article only discusses eggs from birds.
Other than those from chickens and ducks, the Chinese do not eat other eggs very often. Nor do they even eat these eggs as often or in as high a quantity as do people of western cultures. Economics and availability are factors; and current egg usage is growing. To put this in perspective, those in the western world consume an average of twenty eggs a month, those in China consume many less.
Though they do not eat many, Chinese love eggs. They are economical, quick, convenient, and easy to prepare. They use them as food, and to aerate, bind, brown, coat, leaven, provide moisture, shine or structure, thicken, and to color and/or tenderize their foods.
Chicken eggs are used mostly fresh, though some can be found dried, frozen, and sometimes preserved. Duck eggs, whose whites do not foam and that do not make good omelets, are more often used preserved in one form or another. Other eggs can be preserved, but most are not, with the exception of quail eggs, which are also popular in the preserved form.
The Chinese have several unique ways of preserving eggs. These techniques are at least several hundreds years old. No one seems sure when they first learned them, but they were known or perfected by Ming Dynasty times, which began in 1368 CE. During that dynasty, duck and goose eggs were preserved and popular.
The oldest and probably the most famous of all preserved eggs are salt cured, come from Zhejiang, and are loved there particularly at breakfast time. To make them, raw eggs are cracked, then layered between salt and wine residues. Then they are sealed in jars and kept that way for five or six months. Nowadays, chicken, duck, and quail eggs are preserved this way.
Another preservation technique is to coat whole eggs with a thick layer of salt, soil, ash, and tea leaves. These are distilled or just ground together and made into a mud. Salt-cured eggs are called hei dan, and are stored at a room temperature of about 65 to 68 degrees F. They can be kept for thirty or more days, the coatings removed, and the eggs cooked. The mud-covered eggs stay longer, at least twice as long.
Another way to preserve eggs is to immerse them in a pickling solution for about forty-five days, then wash and dry them and coat them with paraffin or mud or both. Some people who make salted or brined eggs flavor theirs with spices including cloves, anise, and black or Sichuan pepper. They make them with or without tea. Others just smoke the eggs. Still others flavor their eggs with any or all of the above and ginger, cloves, fennel, and cinnamon. Yet others add lemon juice and/or pine needles and some or all of the items mentioned. These differences make different flavored eggs. Salted or brined, preserved eggs are best cooked for about five minutes before eating or incorporating them into a dish.
Another preservation technique is to coat duck eggs with an alkaline exterior. Called pidan, these eggs gel. They are known by many names including one-thousand-year-eggs, one hundred-year-eggs, ancient eggs, even Ming Dynasty eggs. The coating is a mud paste whose acid-base or pH content is quite basic. The scale that is measured on goes from one to fourteen, one being the most acidic. These eggs are rated at about eleven. Some of the coatings include mud and wood ash with or without rice hulls. Others just use the rice hulls as an exterior coating. Duck eggs can be just immersed in an alkaline solution for a month or two months or just packed in this alkaline mud paste. Differences in time have to do with temperature. The warmer it is, the shorter the time to preserve them. A few make their eggs at about seventy-five to seventy-seven degrees F, a few do so at cooler temperatures. There are limits at both the hot and the cooler end of making these eggs.
Another preservation technique is making the eggs taste sour. This is done by immersing them in vinegar and salt and keeping them in this solution until the shells soften. Some eggs made this way are kept so long that the shells dissolve. Eggs from ducks or chickens made this way are called zao dan.
Preserved eggs are most popular when made from duck eggs. There are vendors who do make theirs with chicken eggs, and some are known to make and sell preserved pigeon or quail eggs. Virtually all the salt-preserved ones are eaten after some boiling or simmering, between five or ten minutes. Then they can be consumed alone or added to other dishes. Only pidan eggs should be eaten without cooking; though they can be steamed or cooked after preservation; and some recipes ask the cook to do just that.
Eggs have been eaten fresh since Neolithic times, if not before. They can be hard-cooked, scrambled, prepared as omelets, and cooked in a plethora of different ways. Some cooking techniques are regional, while other recipes are used throughout the country. A reasonably universal recipe is making tea eggs. A recipe for these appear in Volumes 8(2) on page 28 and Volume 10(1) on page 24. The type of soy sauce used for coloring varies from one region to another, and differences do impact taste. So does how the shells are cracked make for differences. That is in the crazed look of the exterior. The cooking technique for these eggs is simply to cook them on low until whites and yolks solidify; usually the time frame is half to one hour long.
Eggs can be cooked alone, with other seasonings, and with other ingredients. For new mothers, it is common to put the egg, shell and all, into a vinegar solution alone or put whole egg or eggs in their shells into soups and stews. This post-partum technique assures the mother of an adequate calcium supply. The vinegar softens then dissolves the shell, which is high in calcium. Mothers and breast-fed babies benefit from this readily absorbable supply of calcium. There are many other practical and folkoric practices for new mothers and for others. Eggs are also considered important for the deceased (see the article on funerals in this issue).
An interesting behavior at weddings or just after them is when newly-weds enter the room where they will spend their first night together, they may find a bowl of hot ginger wine with two hard-cooked eggs in it awaiting them. The custom is that each bite into the yolk of one egg to assure they do not panic when they face problems in life. Then they switch eggs and each bite into the white of the other one. Doing so assures living in harmony for the rest of their lives.
Many in China dye eggs red to announce the birth of a child. They signify happiness and luck. In some regions in China, they use red eggs to roll over a bride’s belly. This is to assure or increase her fertility. In some areas, newlyweds get red eggs to assure them and the giver this fertility. In other regions, after a baby is born, one red egg is put in the baby’s first bath water if a girl, two if a boy. These are for luck and happiness. At the one month old party, when a Chinese baby is deemed one year old, eggs are given or received, depending upon the region. These eggs mean different things along with wishes for happiness and luck.
Eggs can be used for divination, that is predictions of the future. Hard cooked eggs can be thrown, where they fall and how they break, if they do, tells all. There are other ways eggs foretell the future. One very simple one is when someone has a sixtieth birthday. Then eggs are given along with noodles to assure good fortune and continued long life; more eggs received means a longer life.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) uses eggs alone or in combination with other foods. Many ancient classic medicinal texts spoke about these usages. TCM doctors advise that eating a partially cooked egg white can cure a sore throat, ingesting three eggs and honey can cure a fever. Fried eggs and pepper will cure a stomach ache, stir-fried eggs with white wine reduce diarrhea, and that adding honey cures skin burns. Eggs are also recommended to rid excessive ear wax, and to provide relief from gastritis.
In China, eggs for medicine or meals are stored at room temperature and kept that way for long periods of time. That may be why all eggs are cooked for longer amounts of time than in countries that refrigerate their eggs. Fresh eggs and preserved eggs are cooked longer, and they are used in all parts of a meal. Except for Buddhists who usually eat no eggs, eggs are used at any meal. In Hong Kong and Southern China, thousand year eggs are popular as appetizers; and served with pickled ginger to stimulate the appetite. Steamed eggs, often made with three different kinds of eggs can be a first dish or a main dish. Steamed eggs, mostly the yolk, are made in a flaky pastry and popular at dim sum times.
Below are some popular egg recipes. They can be used for any part of a meal, and they often are. For information about duck eggs, see Volume 9(1) on pages 9 and 10. Learn about egg use after birth in Celebrating Baby’s Beginnings in Volume 8(1) on pages 13 and 14. And do read about Mountain Herb Eggs in Volume 7(4) on page 6.
In addition, check the ten-year recipe index, but be aware thet it does not have a separate heading for eggs. There, you can find egg recipes such as: Beef and Egg Congee, Blossom Egg-white Saute, Chinese Congee with Pidan, Chinese Omelet, Egg Roll, Egg Yolk Filling, Green Tomatoes and Eggs, Harmonious Stuffed Mushrooms with Quail Eggs, Li Li Scrambled Egg White, Popia Egg Wrappers, Sauteed Scallops and Egg Whites, Shanghai Egg Noodles, Stir-fried Tomatoes and Eggs, and a plethora of other egg recipes where the word egg does not appear in the title, but egg or eggs are in the ingredient list.
Special thanks to Dr. Glenn W. Froning, the Food Science and Technical Advisor to the American Egg Board, for providing some of the technical information about Chinese egg preservation.
|Coddled Eggs, Chinese Style|
1/4 cup Maotai or another clear higfh-proof liquor
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon brown slab sugar
1. Bring three cups of water to the boil, add the liquor and reduce the heat to a simmer, then add both sugars.
2. Slowly add the eggs one at a time, cover, and remove the pan from the heat source. Let it rest three minutes, then serve each coddled egg in its own bowl with some of the liquid.
|Quail Eggs, Rock Sugar, and Noodles|
12 quail eggs, steamed in their shells for five minutes
4 wonton wrappers, cut into half-inch wide strips
1/4 cup white rock sugar
1. Shell the quail eggs.
2. Bring three cups water to the boil, add the sugar, and simmer until dissolved, then add the wrapper slices, and simmer about five more minutes.
3. Add the quail eggs, simmer for three minutes, then serve.
|Egg Drop Soup|
2 quarts chicken stock
shells from a dozen shrimp
1 pork bone, with about half ounce each of meat and fat left on
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 2 Tablespoons cold water
1 egg, beaten with 2 Tablespoons cold water
1 scallion, white part minced and green sliced on the angle
1.simmer stock, shrimp shells, and pork bone for one hour, remove solids and filter the remaining liquid.
2. Reheat stock, add sugar and cornstarch mixure, and mix well, and bring close to the boil.
3. Add egg mixture slowly, stir continuously, then add scallion pieces, and serve.
|Crab Fu Yung|
1 Tablespoon corn oil
1/4 pound crab meat, cartilage removed
1 cup shredded lettuce
6 Chinese mushrooms, soaked for half hour, stems removed, and sliced thinly
4 slices fresh ginger, slivered
2 cloves garlic, thinly slivered
2 scallions, thinly slivered
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 eggs, beaten with three tablespoons water
1. Heat oil and fry crab meat for one minute, then remove and set aside.
2. Add lettuce, mushrooms, ginger, garlic, and scallion
slivers, and stir-fry for one minute.
3. Add crab meat, salt, and the beaten eggs and continue to stir until mostly set. At that point, remove from the heat, and serve.
|Steamed Three Egg Custard|
5 raw eggs, beaten with two tablespoons water
1 salted duck egg
1 pidan-type preserved duck egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon corn oil
3 cups chicken stock, brought to the boil
2 scallions, slivered
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1. Beat raw eggs. Coarsely chop the preserved eggs.
2. Heat oil in a pan, transfer to a casserole that can go into the steamer, and add beaten egg, salt, and stock.
3. Put casserole into a steamer over rapidly boiling water, and cover the steamer, not the casserole, and steam for ten minutes, then turn off the water and let it set for another five minutes, then sprinkle with scallions and soy sauce, and serve.
Note: Some families add the soy sauce with the eggs and not after the steaming.
|Preserved Duck Eggs and Bitter Melon|
1 bitter melon, pith and seeds removed
2 preserved duck eggs, salted or pidan-type
3 Tablespoons sesame seeds
1 teaspoon hoisin or broad bean paste
2 Teaspoons thin soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame paste
2 teaspoons hot tea
1. Cut bitter melon into thin two-inch strips and blanch in three changes of boiling water.
2. Peel eggs and using a hot knife dice into half-inch pieces.
3. Toast sesame seeds in a dry pan until lightly colored.
4. Mix broad bean paste, soy sauce, sesame paste, and hot tea. Then add duck eggs and bitter melon pieces and stir well. Refrigerate covered for an hour, then serve.
|Immortal Eggs, Jiangsu Style|
6 eggs, cooked in water just below the boiling point for ten minutes
1/4 pound finely chopped pork
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon finely chopped ginger
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup corn oil
1/4 cup chicken stock
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons cold water
1. Peel the eggs and cut each one in half the long way, and remove the yolks. Rice two yolks and save the others for some other use.
2. Mix pork, wine, soy sauce, ginger, cornstarch, and the riced egg yolks. Stuff some into the cavity where the yolks were.
3. Heat oil and deep-fry half the yolks, then drain and do the second half, draining them, as well.
4. Heat chicken stock and then add cornstarch -water mixture and the eggs, gently bring to the boil, and when the stock is thickened, serve the eggs, pouring sauce over them.