With its deep amber shade and a glassy exterior amidst the distinctive patterns of fractals resembling snowflakes, the classic century egg is an object of fascination as it is a cause of dread.
A surgically cut and finely cut piece of the egg reveals additional intrigue: a molten yolk with the rich texture of chocolate ganache. It’s tipped with a light dusty olive around the edges and a dark, deep green-black central.
Ammonia odors can often be the defining flavor of this food item, which is known by the name of Aidan in Mandarin Chinese, calling to you to think of the sharpness of a soft and ripe cheese.
It’s different. Indeed, a lot has been written about this egg over the many years.
Italian police take hundreds of century-old eggs and declare them unpalatable.
“They leered up at me from the plate like the eyeballs of some nightmarish monster,” cookbook writer Fuchsia Dunlop, herself an avid egg-lover for a century, wrote about her very first experience with Aidan.
“Their albumens were dirty, translucent brown, their yolks opaque black, and surrounded by the greenish layer of moldy grey. In their vicinity was a faint cloud of ammonia and sulphur.”
The food ingredient was included in the first line-up of the Swedish Disgusting Food Museum, which is a museum located in Malmo that is dedicated to showing “80 of the world’s most disgusting foods,” which has sparked the debate about what is and is not edible … in addition to in what way.
The museum also featured items like durian and tofu that smelled bad, as well as other food items that have been criticized, including surstromming (fermented herring from Sweden) and hakarl (aged sharks originating from Iceland).
“I am able to see how, for certain people, “century eggs” are an ingredient that can be confusing. The majority of ingredients used in Chinese cuisine are like sea cucumbers, dried abalone, fish maw and bird’s nest” Chef Vicky Cheng, who runs VEA and Wing restaurants in Central, Hong Kong.
The lack of knowledge prompted Cheng to put Chinese cuisine at the forefront of the menu of the fine-dining Restaurant VEA around eight years ago. Even today, the menu prominently showcases these dishes with French techniques.
Abalone is a good example. It is served in the shape of a pithivier. The soft mollusk is wrapped in puff pastry.
In the Wing, which opened in 2021, Cheng pays more attention to traditional Chinese cooking techniques and serves traditional recipes and ingredients.
It was in this kitchen that Cheng came up with an original recipe (Cheng says that the team was working on “50 to 60 versions”) for the golden century egg, which he eats with fresh oysters and Shirako (cod milt) according to the season, as well as a fragrant chili oil.
There are the veins … similar to blood. It’s truly beautiful
In contrast to the standard plan, the version made by Wing is crystal clear and has whites like pale diamonds. It also has an ashy, thin ring of powdery egg yolks; however, the middle is a vivid, unctuous orange similar to rich, soft crab meat.
“When you do century eggs preserved in-house, you can control the timing precisely,” Cheng says. Cheng. “Whereas when you buy something off the shelf, you don’t know how long it’s been there.”
The trick is getting the melty consistency of yolk since the longer an egg has been preserved, the more brittle and rubbery it gets.
An egg from the past century is a masterpiece in preservation techniques. Like many other food items, its origins can be traced to the earliest fables of the past. The legend says that the delicacy was invented in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) in China.
It’s the Praya’s Hot Century Egg cocktail, an original twist on the Negroni that is garnished with a piece from a century egg.
A popular tale attributes the discovery of the century eggs to a teahouse proprietor in Jiangsu province. He would dump tea leaves in a heap of ash in the open; the ducks could lay eggs. When the owner discovered the eggs, he broke the eggs loose, only to find they were black and had gotten hard.
In a different story, the homeowner from Hunan province found a bounty of duck eggs buried in a water pool with slaked lime, which was used in the building of his house a few months before.
In each of those stories, the main characters chose to determine if the eggs were edible. It was an adventurous move that egg-lovers of the 20th century will be thankful for.
No matter the method it is, there are some common elements: eggs (whether duck, goose, chicken, or quack) are covered with an extremely alkaline mix typically made up of clay or mud combined with tea leaves, salt, and sodium bicarbonate, ash or quicklime, that combine to create sodium hydroxide.
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In the past, lead oxide was used in order to stop eggs from slamming; however, these days, safer zinc oxide is the preferred choice.
Because of the egg’s porous shell, the process of Osmosis allows sodium hydroxide to break down protein inside the egg and also harden the egg’s whites (albumen). The clay is crucial for sealing the egg and keeping harmful bacteria from entering.
The thing that might surprise food enthusiasts is the fact that the darkening in the egg’s white is due to the Maillard reaction – a similar chemical reaction that causes the appearance of browning in food products due to the sugars in them.
The yolk, however, has a greenish tint due to the reaction of iron and sulfur within the egg. The most common description of its scent as being similar to ammonia or hair dye could be due to the eggs’ proteins being broken down, thus creating hydrogen sulfide and ammonia.
After the congee has been cooked it’s time to add the pidan, and then turn off the cooking. This will preserve the egg’s creamy texture as well as its umami.
Food stylist Gloria Chung
All of this is to declare that the century egg is a complex item, often slammed because of its look, unique smell, and texture. Some, however, believe that it’s something to be celebrated.
Food stylist Gloria Chung Wing-han, as well as photographer Theodoric Wong, the simple century egg was the inspiration for a whole series of photos focused on showcasing the unassuming elegance in Asian ingredients.
Together, they have hunted down and photographed undervalued products like squabs that have been dried wind as well as Buddha’s hand, snakeskin, and other fruit.
The photo of a century egg while browsing Instagram, I was instantly amazed by the unusual interpretation. A single egg appears to float over a white background that seems like an alien spaceship from The 2016 science-fiction film The Arrival.
Theodoric Gong and Gloria’s backlit Century Egg.
Three distinct layers are present: the off-white, fuzzy outer cover made from an amalgamation of woodchips and sand, and then the speckled, matt eggshell. Then, Aidan himself is revealed. Aidan itself is revealed, and its inky center fades to a darker red around the edges. The characteristic snowflake pattern shines through an egg’s crest.
“It’s like the hell version of Frozen,” says Chung.
It’s more interesting that Wong was able to emit a simple bright white light on the egg’s back, and the results surprised them both.
“It’s interesting because if you look at [the egg] by eye, the snowflake pattern is just kind of on the black surface,” says Wong. However, shining light through revealed a different layer of detail.
“You’ve had this vein … similar to blood. It’s quite stunning. I think the term in Chinese is ‘ cai mei,” tragic, yet beautiful.”
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Both stylists and photographers The most enjoyable way to enjoy an egg from the past century is the most relaxing cut up into congee that is hot and creamy. Her maternal grandfather used to manage a congee store in Hong Kong, and she picked up a few tips from her family on making an exquisite century egg congee.
“You have to add the egg at the very last minute,” she states. “You don’t have to cook to cook the pidan. When the congee has been completed, just put in pidan to the pidan and then turn off the heating. This is how you preserve the creamy egg and the umami.”
She says that the reason why some people might not be able to enjoy a century of eggs is due to the fact that they’ve not been prepared correctly or come made from an egg that was already past its prime.
Another myth is that the egg needs to be cooked prior to serving it – however, an egg that is of high quality and preserved for centuries is served once it is broken.
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It is a staple in congee shops as well as Chinese restaurants in which dishes like basic pidan made of sliced, pickled young ginger are the most popular. However, the century egg can be found in a variety of locations.
In the year 2020, Vicky Lau, of two Michelin-starred Tate Dining Room in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, showcased the ingredients in her elegant century egg mimosa. In this, eggs are minced and then served with caviar and crab.
Chef Edward Voon of modern French restaurant Auor, located in Wan Chai, Hong Kong, has reinvented this pidan as an amuse-bouche in his newest menu. The egg is purée with sweet soy sauce and XO sauce, which is then combined with infused sesame-scented garlic and Sichuan fresh green pepper to make the form a bite-sized tart.
The Auor’s Sichuan pepper century eggs amuse-bouche.
Century eggs are also popping their way into Hong Kong bars – it’s available on the menu at The Praya, in Shek Tong Tsui which is a contemporary Cantonese restaurant that boasts an impressive cocktail menu. A recipe dubbed”Hot Century Egg,” Hot Century Egg is presented as a variation on the traditional Negroni.
Mixing Peddlers Gin (selected due to its notes from Sichuan peppercorn) as well as pepper vermouth and onion, Campari, as preserved egg brine. The cocktail is topped with a garnish.