At first sight, there is nothing – nothing, however small– which makes one think “I should eat that thing” when faced with the “Thousand Year Old Egg,” an ancient Ming delicacy which, to Western eyes, looks slimy, rotten and foreboding. From its putrefied center –a creamy, oozing grey where once a yellow yolk resided to the foul odor it emits-this egg says anything, but “eat me.” They are not produced, as you may have heard, by a thorough soaking in horse urine and rather, are slathered with a mixture of clay, wood ash, quicklime, and salt and buried for a period of many weeks.
The first time I saw an egg like this was in late December of 1983 in a floating restaurant, in Hong Kong. My grandmother, intrepid traveler, was also an antiques dealer and at the time was collecting Chinese porcelains and making frequent trips to Hong Kong. As a Christmas gift, she invited me and my sisters on a buying trip.
The first evening of our stay, her friend Peter took us to one of the floating restaurants in Kowloon Bay, one known for its fine and rare cuisine. At nineteen, I was open to all of it, grabbing adventure, the moment, the weird foods from pressed duck this to dumpling that, grabbing it and stuffing it into my experience. I loved everything about Hong Kong, from the noise of the streets to tea at the Peninsula Hotel to the practicality of Chinese mothers who dressed their little children in split trousers so they could easily pee in the street.
We were some course into our dinner, sitting at our table, the floor rocking gently from the wake as other boats went by, when our host, asked if we would like to try a new delicacy, something beyond the easy familiarity of all the other dishes so far served. I said yes. Boo said maybe, and Cinda probably said no. Gesturing to the waiter who circled in the backwaters near our table, Peter ordered “Thousand Year Old Eggs” for us to try.
From the quaint description, I had no idea what to expect, though I was already a firm fan of Chinese ingenuity, so when a large plate was carried in and gently placed in the center of the table, I had no idea how exactly to react to the twenty or so objects it contained.
On the plate, sitting humbly center stage, were several eggs, and here the similarity to my understanding of “egg,” ended. These eggs were the antithesis of my knowledge. Where the white would ordinarily be solid and creamy was a dark brown translucent jelly. The clean and savory yellow yolk that screams of sunny farms and happy mornings was replaced by something thick, putrefied, creamy, something a dark greenish grey hue. It oozed slightly as I discerned smells of sulfur and ammonia.
I looked at Boo, and she looked at me. It was a race and a dare to see who would eat one first. I’ve no idea who won. All I can remember is picking the thing up gingerly with my fingers and stuffing it whole into my mouth, quelling my all too active gag reflex and washing it down with more Tsing Tao beer before going back to try another. The taste was unlike anything I’d had before, unlike anything I’ve had since. Though the entire thing was soft and should have had great mouth feel, I had the distinct memory of childhood, of long ago “things” I had put in my mouth, of my mother rushing, yelling, scolding “Spit that out!”
Should you have an interest in “Thousand Year Old Eggs,” you can find them at many Asian markets. If they are not available in your area, you can make your own with the recipe generously provided here: http://www.recipesource.com/ethnic/asia/chinese/thousand-year-old-eggs1.html
May I recommend before you try this novel Chinese dish that you are first drunk or very open minded as the aforementioned experience put me off of eggs for more than a two-year period. That said; these may be the perfect motivation to start a purgative diet, particularly one which eliminates eggs and other dairy.