Let’s face it, my bucket list has led me to eating some pretty weird food in the past. But nothing prepared me for the first time I was in Thailand and cracked open a century egg. This ain’t your grandma’s deviled egg we’re talking about—it’s a poultry surprise that’s more like a dark secret than breakfast fare. And believe it or not, this 1000-year-old egg is a culinary treasure in parts of Asia. So fellow foodies, let’s take a dive into this “age-old” egg and see if it’s all that it’s cracked up to be.
What Is a Century Egg?
Imagine a regular egg, but marinated in a secret blend of clay, ash, salt, quicklime, and wrapped in rice straw for months. Then, peel away the shell to find a translucent, jelly-like egg white with a yolk that’s somewhere between green and black. Yeah, it’s not the most appetizing sight, but don’t let the “century old egg” appearance fool you, these little eggs pack a mild punch of flavor.
Are Century Eggs a Hundred Years Old?
The name “century egg” might conjure up images of ancient culinary secrets and eggs preserved for centuries. While undeniably intriguing, the truth is a bit less dramatic. Century eggs, also known as thousand-year-old eggs or pidan, aren’t actually a hundred years old. The name is more of a poetic license, referring to their extended shelf life achieved through a unique preservation process.
So, while century eggs aren’t literal centenarians, their history and unique preservation process certainly contribute to their mystique and cultural significance. Their age is more symbolic than literal, representing a time-honored tradition passed down through generations, waiting to be discovered by adventurous palates.
History of Century Eggs
The exact origin of the century egg remains a mystery, shrouded in folklore and legend. One popular tale tells of a farmer in Hunan Province who buried duck eggs as a courting gesture, which the woman he is courting did not find until half a month later while cleaning an ash pit. Another story suggests that the eggs were first created as a way to preserve food during times of famine. Legends also suggest its accidental discovery in China around 600 years ago.
While the precise details may be lost to time, what’s certain is that the century egg has become a deeply ingrained culinary tradition in many Asian cultures. Today, it’s also enjoyed in other parts of Asia, including Thailand (with their pink eggs), Hong Kong, and even the Philippines.
How are Century Eggs Made
Traditionally, century eggs are made by packing duck, chicken, or even quail eggs in rice hulls with a mixture of clay, ash, lime, and salt (sometimes even tea.) This mixture raises the pH of the egg, which triggers a chemical change that preserves the egg and gives it its unique flavor and texture. Depending on the desired degree of preservation, the eggs are allowed to rest for a few weeks to several months.
The modern method is done by soaking the eggs in a solution of table salt, calcium hydroxide and sodium carbonate for 10 days, followed by several weeks of aging in an airtight container.
Are They Safe to Eat?
Yes! Despite their somewhat alarming appearance, century eggs are perfectly safe to eat when properly prepared. The fermentation process breaks down the proteins and carbohydrates, making the egg slightly alkaline and preserving it for long periods. The alkaline environment inhibits bacterial growth, which makes the century egg a gastronomic adventure rather than a risky endeavor.
How Do You Eat a Century Egg
Despite its reputation as an acquired taste, trying one can be a fun adventure for food lovers. Don’t let their strange look put you off! Start with small bites and enjoy the interesting mix of savory and earthy flavors in the creamy yolk and jelly-like whites. To keep it classic, pair it with pickled ginger and soy sauce – a timeless combo that fans really enjoy.
For a heartier experience, incorporate century eggs into a bowl of congee—a rice porridge popular in Asian cuisine. The subtle flavors of the egg complement the comforting warmth of the congee, creating a soul-soothing dish perfect for breakfast or a cozy evening meal.
What Does a Century Egg Taste Like
The century egg’s taste is quite complex. It’s often described as creamy, rich, and pungent, with hints of ammonia and sulfur. The yolk transforms into a custard-like consistency, while the white takes on a jelly-like texture—a taste unlike any other. Some say it’s an acquired taste, while others find it intensely flavorful and addictive. In the end, the only judge will be you and your taste buds!
Where Can You Buy Century Eggs?
Tracking down Century Eggs might feel like a culinary quest, but fear not! These preserved treasures often find their way onto the shelves of local Asian markets, tucked between exotic spices and mysterious sauces. Specialty grocery stores, particularly those with a penchant for embracing global flavors, are another haven for seekers of this time-honored delicacy. Of course, should the bustling market scene not be your terrain, you can always go digital.
Finding Century Eggs may seem like a food adventure in itself, but don’t worry! You can often spot these special eggs on the shelves of local Asian markets, tucked between exotic spices and mysterious sauces. Specialty grocery stores that love global flavors are also good places to look. If busy markets aren’t your thing, you can always search online.
Century eggs (or 1,000 year old eggs) are a culinary adventure through time, tradition, and yes, even a little bit of funk. So, are you brave enough to crack one open and see what the fuss is all about? Just remember, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s definitely a bucket list experience you won’t forget.
My Experience Eating a Century Egg
While taking a Thai cooking class, we made a stop by Chiang Mai’s Somphet Market to purchase ingredients for our dishes. This proved to be a bit more eventful than originally planned. Of course, it had a colorful selection of native fruits and vegetables, along with fresh fish being scaled right in front of you. But, what was unexpected was the opportunity to eat a pastel pink century egg.
A century egg, also known as a thousand year old egg, is an Asian tradition in which an egg is preserved for several weeks or months using a process that combines clay, ash, salt, quicklime and rice hulls. Yum.
We walked through the market with our guide as he pointed out ingredients, some of which we would be using in our meal and most of which would not. He picked up a century egg, gave a brief description and let us all take a whiff. It smelled like ammonia and boasted a moldy green color, so there weren’t many takers when asked if anybody wanted to try it. Except me. And I don’t even like normal, fresh eggs.
Of course, if I’m going to eat something strange so is Peter. Mostly because I make him. He’ll thank me for the experience later. Or not.
Surprisingly, and thankfully, the egg didn’t taste like it smelled. It tasted like a warm, slightly old hard-boiled egg. Not as bad as lamb brain, yet not good enough to eat the entire thing either.
We continued through the market, with the faint scent century egg on our breath. A lasting memory.
With the egg in the past, I fell in love with the eclectic varieties of eggplants, most of which I had never seen before.
And I wanted to make eggplant parmigiana with every one of them.
Even though we would be making our own curry in class, you could purchase it at Somphet Market already complete. But, what fun would that be?
I already had my heart set on using a mortar and pestle to make my spicy paste.
We wouldn’t need to be purchasing coconut milk either, but there was a quick demonstration as to how is was made by simply squeezing.
What fascinated me most about the market, besides the smell of the century egg, was the air-filled bags that held random nuts and beans. It reminded me of the plastic bags of live fish being sold at Hong Kong’s Goldfish Market.
And I was completely perplexed by how they got the air in there. Apparently, it doesn’t take much to puzzle me.
With the shopping complete, we headed to the kitchen to learn what to do with all of our purchases. And I was grateful to not see a century egg in any of the bags.