Friday, December 7, 2012

Bean curd with preserved eggs Hubei style

Here is yet another one of those incredibly simple yet dazzling combinations from the Yangtze River area, and this also has to be one of my favorite things to eat... but only if it’s done right, as they do in Hubei province.

The one place we always could count on for the best version was a wonderful mid-priced restaurant in downtown Taipei right near book store alley. Fuxingyuan was an unpretentious yet perfect beacon for East Chinese food. We became such regular customers that as soon as we walked in the door, the cook would prepare this dish just the way I liked it – with an extra egg – and it would be set on our table within seconds after we’d been poured hot tea.

Generally referred to as simply pidan doufu, or bean curd with preserved eggs, this stunning contrast in black and white relies completely on the excellence of the ingredients, the balanced ratio of tofu to eggs, and an unobtrusive yet tangy sauce topped with simple greenery. 

Of supreme importance are the bean curd, which has to be the soft, custardy type (nen doufu, or tender tofu), and the eggs, which in the most perfect of all worlds are the kind called songhua, or pine flower, because of the crystalline patterns that form under the shell and tell you that this is one perfect egg, as the whites will be perfectly tender and the yolks just the right balance of solid and smoosh. (There's no guarantee whether you'll end up with pine flowers... it's sort of the luck of the draw, but celebrate if you do.)
Hot sesame oil notching up the flavors

This egg has a bad rap because of its appearance and its touristy names: “thousand-year-old,” “century” or even “millennium” egg. 

I mean, really. They’re not at all old and in fact should be enjoyed while they are relatively fresh, as the eggs dry out if left to their own devices. I call them preserved eggs because of how they are made: fresh duck eggs are coated with a combination of quicklime, ash, clay, salt, and rice hulls, allowed to rest for a couple of weeks or months while the chemicals work their magic, and when opened, the whites will have turned a crystal-clear dark amber, while the yolks are a runny grayish-green.

I do realize that encountering an egg with this sort of coloration the first time around may be startling.  But you’ll find that the whites are actually very much like a gentle aspic, while the creamy centers have a gently yolk flavor with a rich, buttery undercurrent. 
Light refracting through the "white"

A lot of times, eating strange things requires a leap of faith and logic. For example, one time I was having lunch in Taipei with an American friend, Janet, and her young daughter. The little girl was at that very finicky stage, and she immediately was very grossed out by our serving of pidan doufu. So I suggested to little Katie that this was egg jello; to my surprise, she bought it and then just dove in like she ate it every day. 

When we lived in Taiwan, old-fashioned grocers would have at least one big brown urn near the door with yellow dragons running around it, and inside would be these eggs. They were sold still encased in those hard little coffins of nubby clay, and I would wash them off under running water before peeling off the bluish speckled shells, hoping that I’d be rewarded with pine blossoms for my effort. And when I was, there would be three eggs that night.

Bean curd with pine flower preserved eggs 
Sōnghuā pídàn dòufŭ 松花皮蛋豆腐 
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer

2 or 3 preserved eggs (see Tips)
1 box soft bean curd (see Tips)
Boiling water
1 to 2 tablespoons Sichuan pickled tuber (zhacai)
1 green onion, green leaves only
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro
½ teaspoon sea salt
1½ teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon rice or apple vinegar
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Elegant & soothing
6 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1. Peel the eggs, rinse them gently to remove any tiny bits of shell, and slice them into thin wedges.

2. Bring a small saucepan half full of water to a boil and slip in the soft bean curd; bring the water to a boil again, then discard the water and carefully rinse the hot bean curd under cool tap water. Drain it and place the square on a cutting board. Cut the square lengthwise in half, and then cut it crosswise into thin pieces (about an eighth to a quarter of an inch wide). Use your cleaver to gently lift up the fragile slice and fan them out on a rimmed serving plate. Arrange the sliced eggs on top.

3. Rinse the pickled tuber and chop it very finely. Thinly slice the green onion leaves. Scatter the pickles, green onion, and cilantro over the top of the eggs. Put the salt, sugar, vinegar, and sesame oil in a wok over high until they bubble furiously; taste the sauce and adjust seasoning, if necessary, and then drizzle this over the greens to wilt them. Serve slightly warm.


Avoid pidan from Mainland China, as I have always found them hard and tasteless. They definitely would work better on a ping pong table than on a dining table. 

Some Taiwanese eggs
Taiwan's pidan 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. The brand I've come to enjoy the best packs the eggs in a little yellow cardboard egg crate. They say there's no lead in them 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. Preserved eggs should not smell like much of anything before you cut them open, since the whites are very bland.

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.
Strangely beautiful

Buy non-GMO, organic bean curd whenever you can. You can use either “soft” or “extra soft” tofu here, but while the extra soft kind will taste very good, it might look a mess, since it tends to fall apart at the merest suggestion of pressure.

That's why the bean curd is quickly blanched in this recipe: to both gently firm it up a bit on the outside, which makes it easier to slice, and also to remove any scent of the packaging.

If you don't have or can't find zhacai in your area, anything crunchy and tart will do, like the Pickled Long Beans we looked at recently.

Different areas of China make their own versions of this classic. In Taiwan, for example, the egg is often served whole on top of a square of tender bean curd, and then either pork floss (rousong) or shaved dried bonito (katsuobushi, which suggests lingering Japanese influence there) are cascaded on top, often with a healthy drizzle of oyster sauce all around instead of the vinegar and hot oil.

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