Wednesday, August 31, 2011

An elegy to the preserved egg, plus a warning on Chinese food imports

Last week or so I talked about my reasons for using balsamic vinegar instead of Chinese vinegar. And today, the Huffington Post filed a story that is pretty damning about Chinese edible exports to the U.S. (Read the linked reports at the bottom of that page for more nightmares.)

This HuffPo story tells us that "food imports from China have been steadily increasing along with other imports. The total value of Chinese food imports stood at $4.7 billion in 2007, up from $1 billion a decade earlier. And according to [Food Safety News], the FDA inspects just 1.5% of all the food that arrives from China. This means that 98.5% of the food we import from China could conceivably harbor pathogens."

As one person recently asked me after reading that post about vinegar, what's safe anymore? Honestly, I don't know everything that you should avoid, but I personally don't touch anything that has been pickled or brined because of the possibility of lead glazing in the fermentation jars, and I also am using less of their other prepared foods. 

But although I can't cover every subject, let me talk to you of eggs first, since these can be so dangerous when poorly done and yet so utterly divine when prepared the right way...

Salted eggs, or xiandan, are duck eggs that have been soaked in a strong saline solution. This turns the shells a beautiful, pale, robin's egg blue, the whites become a thick and salty gel, and the yolks hunker down into a hard and salty center. 

They're all over Chinese markets this time of year so that home cooks can stuff them into their moon cakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on September 12 in 2011. As more and more Chinese have moved into our area, local producers of salted eggs have turned up, and they are pretty decent. However, salted eggs are really easy to make, you can use your own organic eggs of any variety (except perhaps ostrich eggs), and I'll show you how to make your own in the very near future.

The other uniquely Chinese take on the egg that I adore is preserved eggs (pidan in Chinese, and also called for some touristy reason "thousand-year-old eggs" in English), but the ones I've had from Mainland China have invariably been hard and tasteless. They definitely would work better on a ping pong table than on a dining table. 

Pidan and packaging
Taiwan's pidan, though, are often incredibly good, with the egg whites whisper tender and the yolks soft and runny and dark, rather than the tough ochre centers of Mainland eggs. On the right is a picture of Taiwanese preserved eggs and the brand that I've come to enjoy the best. They say there's no lead in them (imagine having to assure your customers that your eggs are unleaded!), and they taste clean. 

I store these eggs in the refrigerator and try to use them within a couple of weeks. Of course, always use common sense when you're dealing with preserved or any other kind of eggs: smell them when you crack them open and look the eggs over carefully.  The eggs should not smell sulfurous at all. In fact, preserved eggs don't smell like much of anything before you cut them open, since the whites are very bland. These pidan should also look solid and not have any questionable liquid running around in them, as that's a sign of spoilage. Do keep in mind that if these eggs hang around too long, even with refrigeration, they can dry out. 

So, keep them chilled, and if you haven't dealt with them for a while, open one up the day before you plan to serve them. And if you are a lover of congee like I am, serve them sliced into wedges in your rice porridge with some crunchy fried peanuts - the perfect breakfast or late night snack whenever it's cold outside.

The absolutely most beautiful egg you will ever see is what the Chinese call a "pine flower" pidan. Crystallized patterns form over the surface of the egg sort of like frost on a window, as can be seen in the photo at the top of this column. I always get terribly excited whenever my preserved eggs turn out to have this beauty mark called songhua, as I'll know that the whites will be perfectly tender and the yolks just the right balance of solid and smoosh.


Today's recipe is one that I served at Diana Kennedy's party last year. It was a big hit, even with those who had never tried preserved eggs before. I made them a bit chichi by serving them on Belgian endive leaves, which serves both as an edible container and a crunchy foil for the soft egg, and then I showered them with julienned young ginger and some of my lovely garlicky vinegar. Easy and fast and totally delicious!

My chichi egg boats

Preserved eggs with garlic vinegar 
Tangsuanzhi pidan  糖蒜汁皮蛋 
Nouvelle Hubei
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer

4 preserved eggs (pidan), chilled
2 to 3 heads Belgian endive
1 finger young ginger, or half a finger older ginger
Garlic vinegar from Sweet Pickled Garlic Cloves
Sea salt or fleur de sel
1. Peel the eggs and wipe all of the shell off of the surface of the eggs. Take time to admire any "pine flowers" that happen to occur on the surface. Use a very sharp and thin knife to cut the eggs lengthwise into quarters, cleaning off the knife between slices.

2. Arrange 16 of the largest and prettiest endive leaves on a platter. Place an egg wedge on each one. 

3. Either cut the young ginger into very fine shreds, or peel the older ginger and julienne finely. Scatter the ginger over the egg wedges. Sprinkle a teaspoon or more of the garlic vinegar over the egg wedges and then place tiny pinches of salt on each one. Taste one of the egg boats and adjust the seasoning as needed. Serve cold.

2 comments:

  1. I love where your posts takes my mind...not only do I discover marvelous recipes, I am refreshed for the wonders of the world. I learn some history, find some passions that I have let go, and become encouraged to learn them back, and more. Thanks Carolyn! ...great sound bytes, AND great bites. You have it all.

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  2. Thank you! That's one of the nicest things anyone's ever said about my writing!

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