The above images of the eggs are not my own (I don't expect mine to turn out quite as impressive as this haha), they are being used with permission from Wei at www.redhousespice.com - I highly recommend following her on Instagram @redhousespice
Century eggs, also known as hundred-year eggs, thousand-year eggs, millennium eggs or in China, simply ‘Pi Dan’, are an intriguing delicacy that I have been marvelling at ever since I became interested in Chinese cooking. The name proves to be a slight exaggeration, although the entire process does take about 4 - 6 weeks!
The origin of Century Eggs is alleged to have been an accident, as is the way with many innovative culinary creations. A farmer was working in his fields when he discovered a pile of eggs that had been hidden in a pool of muddy water and slaked lime. He decided to give them a try and found the taste and texture to be exquisite - he then set about trying to recreate the conditions under which these eggs had been created.
Traditionally, the eggs would be covered in a paste mixture made up of mud, rice, and salt combined with alkaline ingredients that would ‘cook’ the eggs chemically - such as ash, lye, or lime. Nowadays they are typically just soaked in an alkaline solution. The alkaline is absorbed through the shell and starts to break down the proteins within the egg - the flavour becomes richer in the process and fantastic colours and sometimes even patterns on the exterior are formed. The desired consistency is a jellied egg white and creamy yolk.
They are most commonly eaten with congee (a type of rice porridge enjoyed in many Asian countries) or as an appetiser with pickled ginger. Although the appearance can be off-putting - the taste is said to be rich and complex and the yolk acquires a creamy, velvety-like texture.
Understandably, the appearance, whilst beautiful, may be a tad off putting in a gastronomic sense. Fuschia Dunlop describes her first encounter with them: ‘They leered up at me like the eyeballs of some nightmarish monster, dark and threatening. Their albumens were a filthy, translucent brown, their yolks an oozy black, ringed with a layer of greenish, mouldy grey. About them hung a faintly sulphurous haze.’ She now makes frequent use of Century Eggs in her recipes.
Sensitivity is required in discourse, especially in Western culture where we have a tendency to present certain foods from different cultures as ‘disgusting’. For example, James Cordon recently came under fire for serving up Century Eggs as a forfeit in a segment of his game show ‘Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts’. The ‘othering’ of certain food traditions comes down to a lack of awareness, not an inherent disgust at unusual food. Think of how unappealing blue cheese is - both in terms of appearance and as a concept. Yet most of us don’t bat an eye when a lump of stinky mould-ridden cheese is presented to us on a cheese board. I’m all about celebrating other food cultures - not shaming them, and so I decided to give this a go!
I started out by bringing a large pan of water to the boil and adding tea bags and salt to create the base of the solution. The next part was the bit that filled me with fear. Recalling certain scenes from Fight Club, I ensured I had on protective gloves and was outside in the garden before going anywhere near the Lye that was to be added to the solution. When mixed with water, an exothermic reaction happens and the solution becomes hot enough to burn through skin. It is completely safe to work with, if handled correctly!
Once cool, I transferred the solution to a plastic container (needs to be either polypropylene or high-density polyethylene or the lye will eat through it..!) and added the eggs. The next step will be encasing them in clay and leaving them for another few weeks. Stay tuned for updates on how they turn out..!