Grocery Ninja: Thousand-Year-Old Eggs and the Horse Urine Myth

The Grocery Ninja leaves no aisle unexplored, no jar unopened, no produce untasted. Creep along with her below, and read her past market missions here.

20080321eggquarters.jpg

Photographs from FotoosVanRobin on Flickr

My mom’s visiting this week, and I’ve noticed something: Every time my Russian housemate asks about one of the more pungent foods she’s eating, Mom will cock her head to one side, and after much deliberation, respond, “It’s like cheese.” Since a great bulk of what she’s eating most decidedly does not taste like cheese, I’ve puzzled over why her mind leaps to associate the punchier flavors in the Asian larder with it. My theory: For Mom, cheese is one of the most confrontational foods she’s had to share a table with. Hence, in her world, “tastes like cheese” is a most apt descriptor—a Western segue to a Chinese reckoning.

Which, of course, leaves you a tad leery about what I’m about to introduce, doesn’t it?

With all the frenzy over eggs this past Easter weekend, I thought it apropos to share the granddaddy of them all: thousand-year-old eggs. Also called century eggs, these are chicken or duck eggs that have been cured in a mix of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice husks over a period of weeks or even months. The resulting preserved egg, with its quivery, translucent, amber colored (almost black) “white,” and Chernobyl sunset yolk, has been described as “cheeselike.”

20080324eggrow.jpgFor someone who loathed century eggs as a child, yet loved a good, sharp Roquefort, I am unable to parrot that in good conscience. Instead, I will say that texture-wise, the egg’s aspic-like “white” and creamy yolk is known to provoke violent likes and equally violent dislikes. Ditto its sharp, almost astringent flavor and bold, brassy mouthfeel. Oh, and the smell. The smell deserves special mention. For the longest time, I believed the eggs were cured in horse urine, a popular myth corroborated by their very distinct pong of hellfire and brimstone (ammonia and sulfur… you see why I could not share these in Easter proper.)

Having said that, they do grow on you. The adult me is quite fond of them in my pork congee, or steamed with slivers of salted duck egg in a savory egg custard (a la Japanese chawanmushi) – though I still cringe if I accidentally bite into a larger than expected chunk. Serious Eaters may have noticed it appearing on Japanese menus as silken tofu squares topped with century egg-spiked aioli, crunchy tobiko, and snipped chives… a jazzed-up take on the Taiwanese version of cubed century eggs atop cold tofu, drizzled with sesame oil and soy sauce. Fancy, “diluted” versions aside, people who really, really like century egg have it simply wrapped in pickled ginger, or tossed with black vinegar, mint, and hot peppers.

In Asia, the eggs are sold still wrapped in what look like straw coats – remnants of the original curing mix. You crack their coats before digging into their quivery, velvety insides. In the States, you’ll find them sans coats, but with mottled shells intact, sitting pretty in Styrofoam nests. If you’re lucky, you’ll be faced with a decision: do you get the ordinary century eggs “pi dan,” or the pine flower century eggs “song hua pi dan” – so named for the pretty, snowflake pattern left behind on the egg “white" when shelled? How the patterns come about is a mystery. They don’t taste any different though.

There are people who argue that the clay used in different regions, as well as the addition of tea leaves in the curing mix, give rise to varied flavor nuances – similar to terroir in wines. To be honest, I’ve never been able to discern a difference in the eggs I’ve encountered here, and my guess is you would have to do an on-the-ground, village-to-village taste test to sniff that difference out. Oh, and beware the box that does not say “lead free” on the label – lead oxide is sometimes added to the curing mix to speed up the process.

So, no, century eggs do not taste like cheese. Not the kind I’ve ever come across, anyway, and I’m sure even the evilest smelling washed rind would not reek so reminiscently of hell. (Poor, maligned cheese. Why does it always get fingered when people are confronted with challenging foods? I mean, why not say it’s like licorice, boiled mutton, or even cilantro?) They can be pretty good though… in an “acquired taste” kind of way.