Why It Works
- Allowing the egg to solidify on the bottom of the wok before gently scrambling produces larger, fluffier curds.
- Pouring the soy sauce and Shaoxing wine around the sides of the wok rapidly caramelizes them, enhancing their flavor.
Translated literally, “tomato” in Chinese (番茄) means “foreign eggplant,” a description that captures much of tomato's entry and perception within Chinese cuisine, leading to its curious—and beloved—modern alliance with scrambled eggs. When tomatoes first arrived in China during the 16th and 17th centuries of the Ming Dynasty, tomatoes were described by those who encountered them as "red and round, cute and lovely,” but also “inedible.” It was not until the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century that the tomato became a more commonly used ingredient, albeit mostly in restaurants that specialized in Western-style cooking. By the early 20th century, the tomato had broken free of its role as a Western-only food and entered other Chinese restaurants and homes, leading to its eventual marriage with scrambled eggs in the 1940s.
With tomato-and-egg's coincidently nationalist colors—red and yellow, like the People’s Republic of China flag—it has, critically, gained both governmental and cultural favor. The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, called it the country’s “national dish.” And in 2017, China Merchants Bank released an ad featuring a Chinese student who had just arrived in the US, panic-calling his overseas parents at 4am their time for a tomato-and-egg recipe. This ignited fierce debates on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter and Facebook, about the younger generation’s level of independence (or lack thereof) after being so coddled by their parents that they couldn’t even cook such a simple dish. A year earlier, the Chinese Olympic team’s outfits were dismissed by the state media for looking too much like tomato and egg, and by netizens as too Western—resurfacing tomato-and-egg's conflicting identity as both symbolic of Chinese heritage and foreign influence.
Turn to Chinese entertainment and tomato-and-egg is used as a standard by which celebrities' readiness for committed relationships is evaluated. It’s almost a rite of passage at this point: famous actors like Jin Dong, who aced his tomato-and-egg test to enthusiastic applause, and Huang Xiaoming, who bombed his on an episode of Chinese Restaurant to much criticism online, are expected to be able to whip up a passable version of tomato-and-egg at a moment’s notice. This even translates to Western media: comedian Nigel Ng, known for his “Uncle Roger” persona, has an entire video gushing over a Douyin (a.k.a. Chinese TikTok, though it may be more accurate to call TikTok “Overseas Douyin”) of a woman cooking tomato-and-egg. When she adds MSG to the wok, he exclaims, “Oh my god…this is the best cooking instructional video!”
Like so many other dishes that are passed down within families, the variations of tomato and egg are endless and ever-growing. In one video alone, Sichuan Chef Wang Gang shows six of his own interpretations, from one that's extra soft for elders and young children, to a self-proclaimed “lazy man” approach that comes together in minutes. My personal take, shared below, starts by gently scrambling the eggs, and then cooking down the tomatoes in a wok. At home, I do this by cooking the eggs in a nonstick skillet while the tomatoes simmer on the side, but that requires the confidence to juggle two tasks at the same time (or a partner that can be delegated egg duty). If you would prefer to dirty one fewer pan, you can use the wok from start-to-finish. This truly shows off the versatility of the wok: when well-seasoned, it can scramble eggs as easily as the finest nonstick. Once the eggs are scrambled it can quickly be wiped, then reused to cook the aromatics and tomatoes before folding the eggs back in to finish.
Given that most of the coverage of the dish is fiercely personal, tomato-and-egg has provided a special glimpse into the personal lives of some of my favorite chefs and writers. One passage I’m particularly fond of comes from Francis Lam, the host of The Splendid Table podcast: “I looked in my Chinese cookbooks, but [tomato-and-egg] appeared in exactly none of them. Calling up my mother to ask her, I knew, would be like asking her to describe how to tie shoelaces: almost impossible to articulate, buried so deep in her muscle memory. In Chinese cooking, this dish is like air, present and invisible.”
For me, the mystique of tomato-and-egg is lies in part in its fascinating origins and the incorporation of a new ingredient to an established culinary culture, but also in that it's a reminder that it's people who actively shape culture. Less than a century ago, there was absolutely no mention of tomato-and-egg in China. And yet, here it is today: a fixture on the dinner tables of college students, first-time parents, fancy restaurants, and variety shows. From enterprising Chinese farmers of the 1920s looking to normalize this odd red fruit, to new immigrants like my own parents cobbling together a plate of food that could remedy both hunger and homesickness, to Chinese-American chefs like myself experimenting with new versions that feel representative of my personal experiences, tomato-and-egg is a conversation piece that continues to influence and inform important aspects of Chinese culture everywhere. Undoubtedly, our interpretation of what “tomato-and-egg” is and what it represents will change; and what that means ten years from today is being determined by all of us, right now.
- For the Scrambled Eggs:
- 6 large eggs (305g)
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) water
- 5 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons (85ml) neutral oil, such as peanut oil, divided
- To Finish:
- 4 scallions, white and light green parts minced, dark green parts sliced thinly on the bias, divided
- 4 small garlic cloves (15g), finely minced
- One 1/2-inch piece (10g) fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
- 6 ripe Roma (plum) tomatoes (about 1 1/4 pounds; 545g), cored and cut into 1-inch pieces, or one 28-ounce (794g) can whole peeled tomatoes, tomatoes drained then cut into 1-inch chunks
- 1/2 teaspoon Diamond crystal kosher salt, plus more to taste; for table salt, use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1 dash MSG (optional)
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) Shaoxing wine
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) Chinese light soy sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon finely ground white pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon Chinkiang black vinegar
- 1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil (optional)
- Cooked rice, for serving
For the Scrambled Eggs: In a medium bowl, thoroughly whisk together eggs with salt, water, and 2 teaspoons (10ml) oil.
Heat a well-seasoned carbon steel wok (see note) over high heat until lightly smoking. Add 2 tablespoons (30ml) oil, swirling to coat wok. Add eggs, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook, allowing eggs to form a solid layer at the bottom of the wok before slowly scrambling with a spatula, until eggs are gently scrambled in large curds, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer eggs to a plate and set aside. Wipe out wok of any remaining egg.
To Finish: Return wok to medium-high heat and heat until very lightly smoking. Add remaining 3 tablespoons (45ml) oil and swirl to coat the wok. Add scallion whites and garlic and cook, stirring and tossing constantly, until fragrant, about 20 seconds; do not let them scorch. Add ginger and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 10 seconds.
Add tomatoes, salt, and MSG (if using), and cook, stirring and tossing frequently, until tomatoes soften and their juices come to a boil.
Add Shaoxing wine followed by the soy sauce, pouring each around the sides of the wok so that they sizzle. Season with salt.
Reduce heat to medium, then add eggs and white pepper, stirring to combine and breaking up any very large egg curds. Continue to cook until tomato-egg mixture is thoroughly combined and heated through, 2 to 3 minutes.
Stir in black vinegar, remove wok from heat, then stir in sesame oil, if using, and scallion greens. Transfer to a serving plate and serve immediately with rice.
Wok, wok spatula