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.

Recipes:
Century Egg Congee
Century Egg Tofu

14 comments:

tigerfish said...

I thought traditionally, it's soaked in "horse urine"....err...not that I want to scare you but that's what I heard :O

MeltingWok said...

funny thing, Amy, I took a pix close up of the century egg once, but didn't dare to put it up, it was so clear, showing all the spider vein fibrous thingy lines u know hehe, but heck, it is wonderful in porridge, yums !:) That, and I usually like adding crispy salted eggs and spicy hot bean curd in a jar.
P/S: tiger, I think if you buy those that's labeled lead-free, its safer, and has less horse urine smell/taste. I think ?

Wandering Chopsticks said...

Oops. I don't refrigerate mine and I've kept them for months and months. I didn't get sick. I think? :P

Every time I eat these now, I'm reminded of The Bonesetter's Daughter. Do you?

Amy said...

Tigerfish,
The horse urine thing is just a myth I believe. The ammonia smell comes from the denaturing of the proteins in the egg from the alkaline chemicals.

MW,
The eggs I got recently didn't have any of the white veins on the outside which is too bad because I wanted to take a picture of some. :D I love spicy hot bean curd.

WC,
To tell you the truth, for a long time I stored my eggs at room temp. In fact I had some for several months maybe up to a year. But the egg yolk turned orange. I just cut off the orange part and I still ate it but now I keep my eggs in the fridge.

I've never read the Bonesetter's Daughter but now I'm intrigued. I'll have to check it out. :)

Mae said...

Interesting post. I've never eaten one. I'm curios! Looks, um, old... :)

Wandering Chopsticks, i read The Bonesetter's Daughter too!

Mae said...

It seems i can't spell tonight. Ah! It's 3.14am, that's why. Curious. See? I can spell afterall. :)

SteamyKitchen said...

Oh no! I stored in pantry, forgot about them and ate them 6 months later! Since I thought they were preserved already, and "they must be called thousand year old eggs for a reason" I thought they were ok to be stored for a long time. uh oh!

Amy said...

Mae,
Definitely try it one day, it may look or smell weird but it tastes really yummy with a little bit of soy sauce and sesame oil.

Jaden,
I actually did the same thing, stored in the pantry and ate them 6 months (or maybe longer) later. I didn't get sick so it's probably fine. I read on the web that they should be stored in the fridge so I just wanted to be safe in the info I gave. :)

Wandering Chopsticks said...

Amy,

Ack! Maybe it was Hundred Secret Senses that the eggs were prominent? I can't remember which one it was since I read both so long ago. Thought I'd correct myself in case you read it and wonder and wonder what I was thinking...

Amy said...

WC,
Lol, there are quite a few Amy Tan books I haven't read, I will hopefully one day read them all. But thanks for the heads up. :D

David said...

I would avoid any eggs from China even if they say "Lead Free" because false labeling in China is everywhere, as I've discovered from my four year of living here. For example the other day I bought a bottle of grape juice labeled "100% grape juice from imported concentrate", but upon tasting it was obviously completely artificial. Eating any food from China is gambling with your health, no matter how it's labeled.

Amy said...

David,
I agree, in my post I suggested to err on the side of caution and avoid eggs from China entirely. Lots of products from China nowadays are really sketchy, especially with all the news about products being contaminated or whatnot.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone have a recipe for century eggs? I'd like to make some, but I don't want to waste several months and end up with rotten eggs. I can get all the wood ash I need. I just need exact procedures. Send recipe to BobKenz1@aol.com

Jonas said...

Nice... I tried the porridge today, and after ordering a friend told me the horse urine story.

Couldn't help searching the net afterwards to see if it was true, and found this excellent article with it's beautiful pictures. Thanks!

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