If you were shipwrecked on a desert island with only one source of protein, you could do a whole lot worse than eggs.
As you slurp your umpteenth raw egg, wishing again that a few pots and pans had washed ashore too, you get to talking with your fellow castaways about how you like your eggs cooked. Poached, fried, over easy, lightly scrambled … Sure, it’s a kind of torture, enough to make you cry hungry tears. Then again, how else are you going to pass the time?
Now imagine that these folks are all from different countries. One by one, they reminisce about their favorite egg dishes. I’d bet that when the Chinese castaways get around to talking about all the various ways eggs are eaten in China, that monologue would go on for days. Here’s a sampling of what it might sound like.
Rice wine lees with egg (酒酿鸡蛋 jiuniang jidan)
The recipe is simple: rice wine lees, brown sugar, ginger, and an egg that shows up either in “flower” form (drizzled into the hot wine, stirring all the while) or poached. The lees in this case are not a clan from Taiwan but rather the mashed residue of winemaking – grains worn down to whisper-soft wisps, the flavor groggily sweet. This soup is referred to as “good for women,” which is to say it promotes mammary and postnatal health. Sure enough, it’s a synergistic supergroup of zuoyuezi ingredients that have banded together to replenish iron, dispel cold, promote circulation and generally rain blessings upon your house. When goji berries are added, nobody should be surprised if the dish – engorged with wholesomeness – stands up and pours itself directly down your throat.
“Slippery egg” or “satin egg” (滑蛋 huadan)
This Cantonese kitchen trick makes any cook a smooth operator. The key is to combine the egg you’re whisking with some cornstarch slurry. Into the hot wok it goes, along with shrimp or sliced beef or charsiu. A little stirring until it just sets and then the glossy drippy mixture is poured over steamed rice or flat rice noodles.
“Competes with Crab” or “It Rivals Crab” (赛螃蟹 sai pangxie)
Imagine quivering, creamy egg curds with a briny brio. Some have called this dish poor man’s crab – but considering its imperial origins (i.e. invented by palace chefs in Beijing to satisfy Empress Cixi’s crab craving), maybe it’s better thought of as landlocked man’s crab. Flaky fish most often serves as a stand-in for crabmeat; egg yolk does a remarkable impression of crab roe. Recipes vary, featuring yellow croaker, dried scallop and tofu, but in all cases the egg must be treated as tenderly as you would the finest seafood. Other versions mix in salted yolk or top it all with a raw egg for extra richness. Maybe it should be called “Competes With Cholesterol”?
Molten custard (“quicksand”) buns (流沙包 liusha bao)
What’s the best thing about these steamed buns? Is it their appearance: their uncanny resemblance to eggs, with pliable white walls that – when breached – drool gold? Is it the use of salted duck egg yolks in the filling, which adds a grainy and saline complexity? Is it the retro danger in its name? Quicksand may have gone out of fashion as a deathtrap, but the temperatures inside these buns can be just as treacherous. How innocent they look in their dim sum bamboo steamers; how they seethe inside. Think of the lai wong bao, with its solid custard, as a dormant volcano, and the liusha bao as its erupting cousin.
Steamed egg with peppercorn leaves (蒸蛋花椒叶 zhengdan huajiaoye)
The recipe for this silken eggy custard is simple, but adapting it for your own kitchen is by no means a no-brainer. If it comes out runny or overfirm or honeycombed the first time you try it, there are many things to troubleshoot: the temperature of the egg when you beat it, the ratio of liquid to egg, the water aeration, the shape of the steaming vessel and its proximity to the simmering water, the use of a cover to prevent condensed steam from dripping onto the egg surface, etc. But once you figure out your formula for getting it to set as a perfect custard, the real fun begins. Steamed egg can be doctored with dried shrimp, century egg, minced pork, crab, scallop, fish, mushrooms, scallion, chives, cilantro (or any combination of the above), but we like the powerfully aromatic addition of shredded Sichuan peppercorn leaves.
Souffle egg-white balls with red bean paste (高力豆沙 gaoli dousha)
Sister to meringue and marshmallow, this puffy pastry calls upon the upstanding qualities of egg whites. The whites are whipped until steady and mixed with starch; red bean paste (and sometimes banana chunks) are encased in the froth; the snowball is tossed into hot oil. The result, with its soft golden crust, foamy white mantel and dark red core, is not inherently sweet, so it’s topped with icing sugar. Invented in Beijing but popularized in Shanghai.
Muxu pork (木须肉 muxu rou)
Overseas, it evolved into “Moo Shu Pork,” served with thin pancakes and hoisin sauce, but in China, it’s always been just a stir-fry of sliced pork, wood ear, day lily buds and scrambled eggs. Its name is something of a visual pun: the eggs resemble the bright yellow clusters of blossoms on osmanthus trees (木樨 muxi). Another explanation is that in old Beijing, the word “egg” – an essential part of so many profane epithets – was to be avoided in polite company, so they found a floral euphemism instead for dishes featuring this type of egg. Once you know the etymology, it’s difficult not to see flowering osmanthus trees as scrambled egg trees.
Sweet sticky-rice cakes pan-fried with egg (鸡蛋煎年糕 jidan jian niangao)
In Fujian and Guangdong, cakes of steamed sticky rice are often sliced up and pan-fried via a dip in beaten egg. It’s like French toast, if the toast were a slab of elasticated pudding, mildly sweet and studded with red beans. The rice cake slices are roughly the color and consistency of a toffee chew and the scrambled-egg lace gives it a protein crunch. Is it breakfast? Is it dessert? Call it a snack and be done with it.
“The three non-sticks”(三不粘 san bu nian)
Bright as a yellow crayon, this flat puddle of a dessert would make intuitive sense to children – it’s a cartoon sun on a plate. The less whimsical among us might imagine we were being served “melted blob.” Named for what it doesn’t do (i.e. stick to your teeth, your spoon or the plate), this concoction of eggs, starch, sugar and lard was said to have been invented centuries ago by a young wife who had to prove herself to a demanding mother-in-law. If you use your chopsticks to grab an edge of this yellow goop, it will act like a heavy batter that tendrils mightily before it breaks. It may not stick to anything else, but it clings to itself.
Egg-skin dumplings (蛋饺 danjiao)
These egg-skin dumplings are made (one at a time) in a metal soup ladle held directly over a low burner flame. A dab of ground meat suffices for the filling – the wrapper is the real star. Beat an egg, pour it into the ladle and let the tiny omelet form; when the edges have set but the center is still moist, place the raw meat, fold the egg crepe over. Extract carefully. Re-oil the ladle and repeat. (Once you master timing, you can work on symmetry.) Next, the eggskin dumplings are steamed until ready to eat. Interestingly, these high-maintenance creations are typically used as a supporting player in festive soups or ensemble claypots.
“Agate egg” (玛瑙蛋 manao dan)
These hardboiled eggs look like crystal geodes, with translucent chunks embedded in the opaque egg white. Here’s how it happens: Dice a couple of century eggs and salted duck eggs. Carefully crack a raw salted duck egg at its pointier end, and stuff the little chunks of preserved egg into the hole, allowing the yolk to overflow as it’s displaced. Seal the hole by wrapping the entire egg in plastic wrap; steam the eggs upright; let cool. Slice to reveal squishy chalcedony and gelatinous jasper next to the salty golden sun of the big yolk. Congratulations! You’ve made a tiny terrine.
Egg waffle or “eggettes” (鸡蛋仔 jidan zai)
Easy to tear, easy to share, the closest thing to edible bubble wrap you’ll ever find. The iconic Hong Kong street snack known as egg waffles are shaped like an inverted honeycomb – each one a hexagonal sheet of bite-sized puffy balls. Unlike many Western waffle recipes, which call for egg whites to be separated out, then whipped and folded in as a final step, Hong Kong’s eggettes revel in their yolkiness. In the 1950s, when they were invented, these waffles were griddled over a charcoal fire, possibly made with duck eggs, and often sold by the egglet. Nowadays, electric waffle irons have taken over and flavor additions abound: chocolate, green tea, red bean, coconut, sesame, strawberry, etc.
Omelette with preserved turnip (菜脯蛋 caipu dan)
This Hakka-style omelette is a must-try in Chaozhou and Taiwan. We like them best when they reach the lofty heights of a frittata and are sweetened with a handful of torn basil leaves. The thick eggy wedges, with their nubby vegetal crunch, go great with rice porridge. There’s an art to preparing the turnip – soaking it long enough to relieve it of its preserving salt without also diluting its moral turnipitude. A 2007 poll conducted in Taiwan of foreigners’ favorite local foods proved a triumph for the egg family, with oyster omelette grabbing the laurels in the Street Food category and turnip omelette reigning supreme in the Table category.
text by Lilly Chow, photos ©Cherry Li. All rights reserved.
Notably absent from the roster of eggy marvels described above is the forged egg (山寨鸡蛋 shanzhai jidan), an internet legend that rivals the grossest of mainland food scandals. As the story goes, counterfeit egg-makers in the nineties or early aughts developed a recipe for a chemical egg with a chalky shell and a gelatinous interior nearly identical to a raw egg. Distinguishing characteristics of manmade eggs included a rough shell texture and a rubbery yolk. The Epoch Times filed a report on a "ten year veteran" of the cottage industry who trained would-be counterfeiters in the black arts of egg forgery. But a recent investigation in India prompted by media reports of "plastic Chinese eggs" put the conspiracy to rest: The eggs in question weren't plastic, just rotten and probably overcooked.
Lilly Chow spends her leisure time researching colloquial and classical Chinese food writing, and exploring regional cuisines.