I first heard about century eggs from my father after he returned from one of his trips to Southeast Asia in the nineteen-sixties. They’re also known as hundred-year-old eggs, thousand-year-old eggs, pidan, millennium eggs, black eggs and, as they’re more simply known at HuNan Taste in West Orlando, preserved eggs. Some have even referred to them as one of the world’s most disgusting foods.
I don’t think I’d go that far but the mere thought of them might be enough to turn some people away. And if the thought doesn’t do it then the appearance might.
I for one couldn’t pass up trying them after hearing about them so many years ago and then finding them on a menu in Orlando. First of all, despite some of the other names the dish carries, they are not hundreds or thousands of years old. They do, however, take several weeks, even months, to create. It involves coating the whole eggs – duck eggs traditionally though chicken and quail eggs are used, too – in a sort of mud fashioned out of quicklime powder, sodium bicarbonate and plant ash, sealed from air and kept at room temperature for a month or two.
When finished and the shell removed, the egg “whites” will have turned a purplish black but will still be translucent. And the yolk will have become a deep bluish green that’s nearly impossible to describe without referring to bodily fluids. Let’s just say they look like a bad bruise.
This method of preserving eggs is said to have been discovered, by accident, sometime during the Ming Dynasty when, in one of several apocryphal stories, when a cook poured wet tea leaves into the stove ash where his ducks sometimes laid their eggs. When he found them months later, he removed the shell and ate one.
You think the first person to eat a raw oyster was brave? Think of the intestinal fortitude, literally, of that guy.
But if the eggs were anything like the ones served as appetizers at HuNan Taste it’s easy to see why they became a delicacy. The albumen of the hen’s egg had a gelatinous texture, almost like pickled seaweed, and the yolk, best eaten with one’s eyes closed, was creamy. And a healthy dose of spicy chili oil and a handful of coriander helped.
The recipe for preserved eggs may be hundreds of years old but the concept of dry pot style only dates back to the nineteen-seventies. The most surprising thing you’re likely to notice about one of the dry pot specialties, like the beef brisket I tried, is that it is quite wet. The term is merely a distinction from traditional hot-pot cooking, which is done at the table. Dry pot is done in the kitchen.
The best thing about the beef brisket pot was not the meat, which was quite sinewy and chewy, but rather the vegetables – red and green peppers, onions and celery – and mushrooms, cooked so they were still chewy (but in a good way).
I also had the duck in beer sauce, though there wasn’t much beery about the sauce. In fact, I found it difficult to distinguish it from the sauce the beef was in, which is not to say that it wasn’t good. In fact, I enjoyed the forward spicing and lushness of the sauce. But here again the protein wasn’t as enjoyable as the vegetables, which also had the bell peppers but included large pieces of ginger and several whole cloves of garlic. The duck was cleavered into small pieces so that trying to get purchase on enough duck with your teeth was difficult. There were also too many bone shards.
Besides the preserved egg I sampled the pan-fried dumplings, which were modest and filled with a minced substance. I honestly couldn’t tell if it was pork or chicken, the taste gave no clue.
Next time I won’t bother with something as pedestrian as pot stickers. But I just may be developing a taste for preserved eggs.