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Sink Your Teeth Into This Thousand Year-Old Egg

written by Marah Koberle 5th July 2018

After getting the theory part of her research done, Marah Köberle wonders if she can stomach the practice part and eat a most unappealing looking of eggs.

On a quest for century-old preservation techniques, I find myself seated in one of Nairobi’s many Chinese restaurants, on that stretch of Argwings Kodhek Road in Hurlingham that I call the “Chinatown” of Nairobi. The restaurant is located in the same place as a round-the-clock casino with colourful flashing lights beckoning in gamblers from outside. Inside the lights of the chandeliers shine bright and the walls are decorated with red ornaments and wall hangings. The tables next to us are frequented by Chinese patrons, their tables overflowing with delicacies. I spot serving plates of spicy crayfish, bowls of mutton soup, colorful salads as well as sizzling plates with octopus and meat dishes. Some of the tables have extra serving trays next to them as the dishes exceed the space on the table. Behind the counter a huge glass container with schnapps and a massive ginseng-root, which looks a bit like a wrinkly hand, catches my attention.

I am not here for a normal dinner, although I am waiting for our food to arrive. I am here on a mission: finding a Chinese dish, dubbed ‘Century Egg’ or ‘ThousandYear-Old Egg’ or in its Mandarin name “Pidan”. This pickled delicacy is made from preserving eggs for weeks or months in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime and rice hulls. The fermentation process transforms the yolk into a grey or dark green creamy mass, while the egg white turns to a translucent jelly with a strong salty and umami flavour.

As I wait for our food, my curiosity is mixed with the apprehension of not knowing if I’ll be able to enjoy the coagulated egg. That said, the excitement to have found the egg in the first place is stronger. Diving into the world of pidan I learned that the eggs are produced both in Chinese households in the traditional way, as well as in huge quantities in factories. The preservation technique is ancient, said to originate in the Ming Dynasty more than 600 years ago. While preserving eggs in a time of plenty is said to have been one reason to use the technique, the quest to create more complex flavours through fermentation is suggested to be another. Like making cheese from milk, the fermentation of the eggs creates a new taste experience. Today pidan eggs are a popular dish in China and other Eastern Asian countries.

After arriving at the restaurant I scan the menu which is full of pictures and descriptions of the dishes on offer. To my disappointment, I can’t find pidan or pidan dou-fu anywhere. Walking up to the Chinese owner of the place, the language barrier is evident but eventually, she signals that she can prepare it for me. The cold dish arrives as a starter. Chopped pidan egg is sprinkled over silky thin silken tofu slices. Some sliced spring onions and a vinaigrette of sesame oil, Chinese vinegar and soy sauce complete the dish. The pidan looks exactly as expected. Greenish-blackish yolk and gelatinous translucent egg-white pieces. Hesitant, I grab my chopsticks to dig in and am pleasantly surprised. The light saltiness and umami flavour of the egg complements the fresh tofu and rich vinaigrette resulting in an interesting and balanced dish. I immediately dive in for seconds.

I make a mental note: don’t let the description or look of a food influence your opinion about it. Try it before judging.

Preparation

Ingredients

  • 3 – 4 cups very strong black tea
  • 2/3 cup salt
  • 3 cups wood ash
  • 3 cups charcoal ash
  • 1 ¾ cups quicklime
  • 18 fresh eggs (duck or chicken)
  • 2-3 pounds rice chaff
  • Latex gloves

Method

  1. Brew very strong black tea and let it sit for an hour. Mix the ashes, salt and quicklime. Add the tea bit by bit to make sure the mass is solid and not watery. Place the rice chaff in a separate bowl. Use the latex gloves as the mixture might cause discomfort to your skin. Coat each egg with the mixture. Place each fully coated egg in the bowl with the rice chaff. Cover it completely and press lightly so the chaff sticks to the egg. Set the covered egg aside on a plate and repeat with the next one. Line a large crock with garden soil (preferably soil with a high clay content), place the eggs and cover with more soil. Store in a cool, dark place and don’t cover it, it should be able to dry out.
  2. Wait for 100 days to crack them open and enjoy.

Follow Marah on: www.koeberle.me

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