With the Chinese new year just behind us, I invited some friends over to help me look into that famous Asian delicacy, 1000-year-old duck eggs. When the gang arrived, I pulled the brown, grassy ovals from the cupboard.
“These can’t be duck eggs!” Isla gasped.
“They look more like duck-billed dino eggs to me,” Will agreed.
I had to admit, the eggs did look a little other worldly. I got hooked on this unusual food while looking into the truth behind a note in a yellowing old copy of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. It claimed that eggs of murres, a northern seabird, had blue whites when fried.
It turns out, blue (or green) eggs DO occur naturally, but only once they start to go bad. Rotten eggs are bluish-green and stink like a bean toot when they’re broken.
Thousand-year-old eggs are different, though. They only look rotten. And they’re not anywhere as old as you’d think. In spite of their name, it only takes 100 days to make them. Although shunned by most Western palates, the Chinese have valued these preserved duck eggs for 500 years. It was time to see why. I peeled off the brown muddy coating. Underneath, we found a pale blue eggshell, spotted with brown circles.
“I told you!” said Will. “It’s just like in Land Before Time. There’s going to be a baby dinosaur skeleton inside!”
” Littlefoot!” said Isla.
I cracked the shell and began gently peeling it back. Something glistened. “Yikes!” I said, dropping the egg back onto the counter. It’s black inside!”
“We have to check this out,” Will said gravely. “Keep peeling, Vinny.”
“If you’re so brave, you do it,” I returned. And Will did. Sticking his thumbs under the shell he took off the whole thing. In his hand sat a transparent, firm jelly… a rich amber egg.
“Beautiful!” Isla said. And it was. She took up a sharp knife. “Let’s see what’s inside.” She grinned while she neatly sliced the thing in half. The yolk had turned solid, like you find in a hard-boiled egg. But its color! “Ewww!” Isla said. “It’s a dark bluey gray. What the heck is wrong with it?”
Of course, nothing was wrong with it. It was a perfectly preserved duck egg. These eggs are kind of the complete opposite of pickled eggs. Instead of using a vinegary acid, Chinese chefs bathe the eggs in a basic, or alkaline, mixture of salt, ash, lime, and/or tea and wrap them in the husks of rice. Then they wait three months or so before they unveil their work. The special bath seeps through the shell and works away on the protein in the eggs to unravel them. The whites turn into a creamy jelly and the aged yolks are greeny blue. The odd color is due to a chemical reaction between the bath and the sulfur in the yolk. There’s nothing in the world like them.
You just cut these babies into wedges and serve them with sweet pickled green onions or any sweet pickled vegetable. I like them soused in a sauce of 2 tablespoons each vinegar, soy sauce and rice wine and 1 tablespoon minced ginger root. Will put some of the amber whites on his tongue.
“What does it taste like?” Isla asked, wrinkling her nose.
“Nice,” said Will. “Kind of like a normal egg… only maybe a little like nuts, too.” He added, “There’s a kind of chemical smell – nothing stinky.”
Okay, these eggs aren’t something most people will rush out to try. If you do want to, any Asian grocery store will have them at a reasonable price. I got six for $3.69.
What’s cool though is seeing how chemistry works its magic on the innards of eggs, changing their very essence. It’s also cool to think the Chinese have figured out how to keep eggs in an edible state for months, even years, without needing to put them in a fridge. It makes you think just how much there is learn from the old ways.