It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
CENTURY EGG (皮蛋, pídàn)
Regions of use: China
Tasted at: Bandao Jiu Lou (半島酒楼) // 95 Huanghe Road, near Beijing Road (黄河路95号, 近北京路) // Closest Metro Stop: People’s Square (人民广场) Lines 1, 2, 8
You wouldn’t think something as ordinary as an egg would repel so many expat eaters. However, in China, egg options can be far from ordinary with eggs stewed in schoolboy urine, eggs that bounce like squash balls, and of course, century eggs. Though probably the least odd of China’s odd egg roster, the century egg gained notoriety last year when a CNNGo reporter dubbed it “the most revolting food he’d ever had,” enraging century egg producers and fanatics alike. We hoped to discover whether the century egg was a rightfully-deemed “bad egg” or conversely, a love we just hadn’t hatched yet.
The century egg ‘unscrambled’
Contrary to wide belief, the century egg’s preparation doesn’t involve burying an egg underground for a hundred years, nor does it call for horse urine – despite its Chinese name rhyming with “pee’d on.” The cooking process instead requires curing eggs, usually duck eggs, in an alkaline concoction of mud, lime, ash, tea, salt, and rice hulls for around 100 days (or shorter if it’s warmer). After the 100 days or so, the eggs are exhumed and served sliced like oranges with soy and vinegar, or cubed and scattered over doufu or congee.
With a name like “century eggs,” you’d expect these eats to have a wealth of historical info attached to them, but their origins are unfortunately grayer than their yolks. While most cite the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) as the century egg’s birth-era, others believe it originated in Chinese cooking 1,000 or more years ago.
Origin stories are equally murky with one of the more noteworthy tales concerning a Hunan man in the Ming Dynasty who happened upon eggs that had been sitting in lime at a construction site for two months. He allegedly tasted the eggs, concluded that they needed salt, and the century egg was born.
More is known about the nutritional properties of the century egg, which despite its literally oddball appearance (which usually denotes a nutritional/medicinal miracle in Chinese gastronomy), has diminished nutritional value compared to a normal egg. But the aging process does lend the century egg a seemingly interminable shelf-life and one of the more distinctly pungent flavors on the planet, which was enough for us to seek it out.
Century egg sampler
It’s likely that the best century egg you’ll find in Shanghai won’t be that much tastier than the worst, at least compared to the discrepancy between, say, xiaolongbao or pho. Nonetheless, our egg-ery of choice was Bandao Jiu Lou, a locale that serves
you unadulterated Shanghai-style century eggs, sliced and arrayed on a plate with cilantro and a few drips of dressing (10RMB). No wussy egg slivers dispersed to the far-flung reaches of a mountain of doufu or eggs submerged in congee for us.
The eggs descended upon our table, their gelatinous whites a deep amber like crystallized sap or beach glass, and their yolk a gray-green with a pat of slime in the middle which resembled phlegm. They looked like once-normal eggs that had been converted to the dark side by Emperor Palpatine.
We lifted a wobbling slice up to our maws and began to eat. Our first egg wasn’t too bad. The white was tasteless and felt like jello merged with sea cucumber while the yolk gave off a sulfurous, mineral-y kick with some slight funkiness.
However, the funk and earthy essence seemed to double in harshness with the second egg and triple with the third, accumulating with each egg no matter how long we waited between slices. Where there hell was that mountain of doufu? After finishing the last egg, we felt more relieved than satisfied.
In the same way cheese disagrees with many Chinese, century eggs didn’t quite click with our taste buds. Were they the worst things we’ve ever eaten? Not even in the same stratosphere. And though century eggs may indeed be somewhat of an acquired taste, friends of ours liked their sulphuric flavor upon the first nibble. Have a try.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Jellyfish
See a complete list of our Off the Beaten Palate series here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].