Where most people get flowers and chocolates for Valentine’s Day, I get Chinese century eggs. Not that I mind of course – trying new foods is my favourite past time.
Century eggs, sometimes called thousand-year-old eggs, are nowhere near that age. In fact, they can take less than a fortnight to prepare, the eggs being cooked by preserving them in highly alkaline conditions, traditionally a mixture of slaked lime, rice husks, ash, clay and salt is used, but now a controlled chemical solution can do the job of “cooking” the eggs in a much shorter time. The English name for this 600-year-old Eastern delicacy, in Chinese called pidan, comes from the strong and unappetising smell of ammonia and sulphur that they exude – not a product of Victorian sensitivity though as even in Thailand they’re known as horse-urine eggs.
Mine aren’t too smelly, but I imagine that those sold with their traditional coating still intact are more pungent. Peeling one open, I found an ammonia stink, but nothing too overwhelming – perhaps I had expected worse! I broke my egg a little on cracking the shell, but this revealed the bizarre colour scheme within, a product of the chemical cooking process. Texturally, it was initially just like a hard-boiled egg but the “white” (perhaps the technical term, albumen, is more appropriate) is more wobbly, a little reminiscent of a cheap packet of strawberry jelly. The yolk is blue, not yellow, and has a waxy consistency, dense and less powdery than the hardboiled alternative.
In China and Chinese-influenced parts of South-East Asia ,such as The Philippines, Malaysia and Burma, century eggs (made with duck, chicken or quail’s eggs) are enjoyed raw with pickled ginger or as part of a cold-meat platter at the start of a meal. Most popularly though, they are cooked into a congee, a rich rice porridge, sometimes with pork included, and this is how I chose to prepare mine – I anticipated that strong flavour of the egg would be diluted by the soft, bland rice. In hindsight, I don’t think this was the best strategy.
In the cooking process, the rice had done the opposite to what I expected and instead it had soaked up the flavours of the egg and made the congee far too rich (even with ginger and shallots added to temper it). Although the flavour was palatable, like a very creamy, supercharged boiled egg, I couldn’t manage the cloying richness of a whole bowlful. Perhaps eating them straight from the shell, with Asian style pickles or salad dressed with something sharp or vinegary is the way forward for the other five that I have left. I don’t expect to find them catching on in the big supermarkets though.