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Iron Eggs

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Spring Volume: 2006 Issue: 13(1) page(s): 5 and 8

A recent trip to Taiwan refreshed memories about special black eggs, often mistaken for the mis-named preserved hundred/thousand year eggs. Unlike them, iron eggs are neither buried nor preserved for thirty to a hundred days. Another difference, iron eggs are not made from duck eggs, as are their black cousins. Rather, they are made from chicken, pigeon, or quail eggs. Another difference, they rarely precede a meal and rarely are eaten with pickled ginger as is typical with the black preserved duck eggs. Iron eggs are a common street food that sometimes makes its way into local dishes. While iron eggs are a Taiwanese invention, these Chinese snack foods are now found in Africa and in the Middle East. They are also and especially popular among Taiwan’s military. We were amazed to find them everywhere in and north of Taipei and at Taipei’s airport gift shop.

In some cultures, things called ‘iron eggs’ are not eggs at all, but rather words used for bombs, real or imaginary. In others, ‘iron eggs’ are the places or birthplaces from which witches emerge. In the Taiwanese culture, iron eggs are eggs cooked and recooked many times. Some are cooked in soy sauce, others in tea. These liquids can be used alone or with added herbs and spices and with a sweetener such as maltose. They shrink with their multiple cooking times. They harden quite a bit making the eggs, particularly the albumen; it gets very chewy.

The iron eggs we saw were sterilized at high temperatures, shrunk wrapped in heavy see-through plastic, and vacuum-packed. The ones sold at the airport came, many to a packet. In stores, supermarkets, and from street vendors, we saw the chicken eggs individually wrapped or pre-wrapped and in sealed bags of one, two, five, six, seven, or ten. The pigeon/quail eggs came in batches of seven or thirty-five in one package. We never saw these smaller ones individually wrapped or in sets of two to five.

These repeatedly cooked local treats are a speciality of a town north of Taipei, in Damshui. They have spread to many other places, near and far. This town of Damshui used to be transliterated as Tamsui, now you sometimes see it spelled Damshuei. This town is a commercial municipality on a river of the same name, a river that empties into the Taiwan Straits.

Iron eggs are prepared with assorted flavorings. Most popular are five different ones, some marinated before cooking, others just cooked in soy sauce or strong tea. After the first cooking just until solid, they are peeled. After that, there repeated ‘stewings,’ as some of the locals said. Most popular are eggs with no additional flavoring. After that, next popular are the chili eggs, then those flavored with garlic, or garlic and chili. Different companies make theirs with other seasoning selections.

One company, Fu Che, is ready to sell these snacks with new tastes. The newest notions are iron eggs with coffee or chocolate flavorings, and even some with cheese. These three new flavors are beyond the drawing board-stage; they are almost ready for market.

While these tastes sound unusual for the Chinese market, we doubt they will be. The reason is, children and adults adore them as a breakfast food. They are seen consuming current flavors on the way to work or school, and as a snack food at recess, coffee break time, and other moments when needing or wanting a quick and filling snack. This company and others also sell a related item called bloated eggs. These are softer eggs cooked in tea leaves and cooked but once. All iron eggs sold by the Fu Che company tout they have no preservatives.

Iron and bloated eggs do not have to be refrigerated until the outside packaging is opened as long as they are used before the date stamped on their package. Ones we saw were dated many months later. The date is only valid for those in the unopened exterior packaging. Most commercially made iron eggs use constant high temperature cooking, and high pressure steaming, as well as a static sterilization process. Photographs we’ve seen of the manufacturing facilities are modern and loaded with stainless steel.

One Taiwanese expat told us the ones she likes are cooked eight different times, with eight different spices and herbs. Another lady, a restauranteur, provided us with a cellophane bag from the Chen Gee Sheng Corporation at No. 18, Lane 121, Li Te Road, Pei Tou District, in Taipei. This company was founded in 1912, and their spice bags are recommended for when you make your own iron or tea eggs, for making spiced beef, and for use in other dishes.

Not able to get to Taipei? Here is a recipe for making spicy chili iron eggs. Feel free to vary it when making other flavors. Two other recipes after that one use prepared iron eggs to make other dishes. These recipes can be prepared using preserved duck eggs in place of iron eggs. The recommended substitution in these or any recipes for preserved eggs is one or two iron eggs replacing each duck egg, or visa versa.
Spicy Iron Eggs II
2 fresh red chili peppers, seeded, and minced
2 fresh green chili peppers, seeded and minced
12 chicken eggs, at room temperature
1 Tablespoon thick soy
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
6 cups prepared black tea
1 envelope mixed spices, to taste
1. Heat wok, add chili pappers, and stir-fry until soft, then remove and set aside.
2. Using thin nail or egg end punch, put nail hole in the large flat end of each of the eggs Put them in a large pot and add six or more cups of water to cover them. Bring to below the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for ten minutes. Turn off the heat source and let eggs cool for half an hour, then peel them and discard the water.
3. Return eggs to the pot, add soy, sesame oil, the black tea, and the seasoning packet. Bring to the boil, reduce heat, and simmer for ten minutes, then turn off the heat source. Allow ro cool for one hour. Then repeat this cooking process seven more times. After that, remove eggs and refrigerate them until served or keep them and use within five days, keeping them in the refrigerator.
Eggs in Gelatin II
6 iron eggs, cut in half
5 Tablespoons pickled ginger, cut in thin slices
4 Tablespoons gelatin powder
3 Tablespoons sugar
1. Prepare twelve glass jelly cups or similar molds putting half an egg cut side down, in center and some ginger around the edge.
2. Mix gelatin with two tablespoons cool water and set aside for ten minutes until it swells. Then add one cup boiling water and stir until dissolved. Carefully pour some into each cup not dislodging the egg nor the ginger. Then chill, covered, in the refrigerator until set.
3. Very quickly dip one cup into warm, not hot water, then using a thin spatula, loosen the edge and flip over onto a serving plate. Quickly return to the refrigerator. Repeat until all are loosened and removed, then serve.
Note: If replacing iron eggs with preserved duck eggs, peel the eggs, then drop in boiling water for one to two minutes. Remove and dry the eggs, then make recipe as indicated above. No nutrient analysis provided as it depends upon which eggs and how many are used.
Eggs and Tofu II
4 to 6 iron eggs, cut into large pieces
1 pound soft tofu, cut into large cubes one-inch or bigger
1 teaspoon pickled Sichuan mustard, minced finely (optional)
1 scallion, minced finely
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 piece lettuce or spinach
2 teaspoons pork floss
1. Mix egg and tofu pieces, then add all other ingredients except lettuce and pork floss, and stir gently.
2. Put lettuce on a serving plate, pour egg mixture on the center of these greens. Sprinkle pork floss on top, and serve.
Note: If replacing iron eggs with preserved duck eggs, peel the eggs, then drop in boiling water for one to two minutes. Remove and dry the eggs, then make recipe as indicated above.

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