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August 11, 2016

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Preserved eggs: appearances can be misleading

ONE of the most contentious dishes in Chinese cuisine, at least where foreigners are concerned, is no doubt pidan, also called “thousand-year-old eggs.” CNN once described it as the world’s most disgusting food.

But Chinese people and some foreigners would disagree. It’s really just a matter of taste, just like Limburger cheese, whose strong smell either delights or repels people.

The various methods of preserving eggs originated hundreds of years ago before refrigerators were around to extend the life of perishable foods. Preserved egg dishes have been part of many Chinese regional cuisines for centuries, and local cooking styles and seasoning vary widely.

Pidan is the most well-known of the preserved egg dishes in China. Perhaps the characteristic black color gave rise to the moniker “thousand-year-old” eggs, but the preserving process actually takes only weeks. In China, the snowflake patterns on the egg whites give the eggs the name songhuadan.

There are several tales of how and where pidan was originated.

One story traces back to Wujiang County in Jiangsu Province during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when a small restaurant owner accidently poured soaked tea leaves in the stove ash where his ducks usually laid their eggs. Later, when he was cleaning out the ash, he is said to have found some eggs that he had missed collecting earlier. When he removed the shells, he discovered the polished dark eggs with white patterns had a distinct aroma and tasted smooth and delicious.

Several places in China are renowned for their preserved eggs, including Yiyang in Hunan Province, Yichun in Jiangxi Province and Gaoyou in Jiangsu Province.

Transforming fresh duck eggs into the black colored, gelatin-like pidan takes two to eight weeks, depending on the temperature. The coating is made from a mixture of quicklime powder, sodium carbonate and plant ash.

To make them, salt is added to a dry wok and stirred constantly until a cracking sound is hear. Then water is added and brought to the boil. The water is then left to cool before the powder mixture is stirred in to a muddy consistency.

The duck eggs are then individually wrapped in the “black mud” and rolled on rice husk. In a jar or pot, the eggs are carefully arranged and the contained sealed off from all air. It’s best kept at room temperatures of between 15 degrees and 30 degrees Celsius for about a month. The eggs are ready earlier on hotter days.

Pidan is a controversial food in the modern diet. Traditional recipes often add yellow lead powder to kill bacteria, accelerate the protein denaturation and darken the color.

Today, most pidan sold in markets are labeled as lead-free to meet national regulations. Still, children and people with heart, liver and kidney diseases should not be eating pidan.

Since the quicklime has already “cooked” the eggs, pidan is eaten raw. But you can steam the eggs for five minutes if you want to be on the safe side or prefer firmer yolks.

Pidan is often served with a simple sauce of soybean sauce, vinegar and chili to complement the flavors of the egg and take away the smell. Cold pidan salad is a popular dish to accompany beer and spirits in the summer.

A famous Chinese appetizer pairs sliced pidan with bite-size cubes of silken soft tofu. The dish is served with a mixture of light soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, salt, sesame oil and an optional splash of chopped chili and cilantro. The dish is best served after cooling in the fridge for about an hour.

Pidan and pork congee is among the most popular dishes in Cantonese dim sum restaurants. The preserved egg and lean pork shreds are simmered in a thick rice congee for 10 minutes and served with some chopped green onion. Ginger is added for extra spark.

In Hunan cuisine there is a popular dish called mashed pidan and chili pepper.

Fresh green chili peppers are sautéed whole over low heat until they soften. They are ground up and then mashed in with garlic, pidan, vinegar, sesame oil and light soy sauce. The dish is dark and rather unattractive to look at, but the taste is unique and it goes well with steamed rice.

Because of pidan’s gelatin-like egg white and runny yolk, it’s not often cooked as a stir fry, although some restaurants do fry the eggs lightly with lots of chili and peppercorns for an intensely flavored dish.

A lesser known dish is called pidan sausage, made by mixing fresh egg wash in chopped pidan, and then squeezing the mixture into sausage casing. The sausages are steamed for 30 minutes and then sliced to serve with dipping sauce of soy and vinegar.

Good quality pidan has its intact shell, with no big black spots and no sound when shaken gently. Don’t buy pidan that has a pungent or moldy odor.

The golden-colored preserved egg called biandan is popular in Henan, Shandong and Hebei provinces. Unlike pidan, biandan has a bright yellow color and a lighter taste. It’s also lead-free because no yellow lead or substitutes are used to process the eggs.

Biandan is made with fresh hens’ eggs, quicklime, sodium carbonate and bran husks or sawdust — similar to the process for making pidan.

Biandan has a firmer texture and the yolk is less runny. The egg is served raw with vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, garlic and cilantro. It also combines well with soft tofu in cold dishes.


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