Monday, November 14, 2016

Marbled tea eggs

I have to say, I was truly flabbergasted this week to read these lines on Tastebook

"Carolyn Phillips’s exhaustive study of Chinese food culture is a thing of legend" and "Each of the 300 recipes [in All Under Heaven] features a detailed headnote, and the author’s... illustrations tell the story visually — in a sort of Wall Street Journal meets Lucky Peach way." 

Writer Matt Robard did a wonderful job of understanding and explaining both All Under Heaven and The Dim Sum Field Guide in his article, "How To Do Dim Sum Right in 5 Dishes," and I thank him and Tastebook for this from the bottom of my heart. 

And my gratitude to all of you who stopped by to see me at the LDEI Literary Feast yesterday. What a wonderful day and what a lovely way to catch up with old friends... and new ones, too!

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Marbled tea eggs are some of the most beautiful things you can set on a plate, bar none. They look like exquisite porcelain orbs, with the crazing on the glaze ranging from the palest beige to deep mahogany. And, when done right, the flavors seep down into the eggs (see the last picture below), permeating the whites with savory whiffs of soy sauce and aromatics, so that each bite is pure pleasure.

I first had tea eggs long ago in Taiwan, where they are incredibly popular. Some even think that they are part of Taiwan’s delectable cuisine, but these were introduced to the island back in 1949, when the Nationalists arrived with all their great chefs and fine home cooks in tow.

Almost too beautiful to eat
Shanghainese hallmarks like good soy sauce, flavorful tea leaves, Shaoxing rice wine, punchy spices, lots of green onions and ginger, a touch of sugar, and some tangerine peel make this East China source unmistakable. You can vary the seasonings to suit your heart’s content (and the balance of your meal), of course, as shown below, to create your own personal masterpieces.

One thing I’ve discovered after eons of making tea eggs is that the wine and the tangerine peel are vital components. It must be the acid in them that allows all of those flavors to work their way down through the cracks in the shells, for without them, I’ve found that the seasonings stay stubbornly near the surface. You can use either home-dried tangerine peel or Cantonese aged peel for this – both are tasty and both work well, so use whatever is easiest. (See the tip below for directions on making your own dried tangerine peel.)

Ready to chill
Cantonese aged tangerine peel, I must admit, has an almost heady fragrance, very perfume-y and lush, so if you find it in a good herbalist’s store, do snap it up for this and other dishes that I’ve talked about here and in All Under Heaven. These peels are very dark and – when the food gods are smiling on you – will be tied up in little stacks with bright red string. They should not be hard, but rather leathery. Store them in a tightly closed container in the pantry, where they will stay tasty for a long time because – after all they are aged.

If you are a sucker for pork, soak one of the petals (they usually come as whole peels that are split into thirds, and one of those thirds is what I call a “petal”) in warm water, then use a spoon to scrape off the whitish pith, which can be bitter. Chop the peel finely and use it and a good bit of finely chopped fresh ginger to season a pork patty, as in the recipe for Steamed Minced Pork with Salted Fish on page 205 of AUH (eliminate the fish, of course, as otherwise you won’t taste the tangerine.)

Anyway, back to those eggs. Use older eggs, if you can, as they will peel better. Set refrigerated eggs in a pan of warm water to get rid of the chill, as you don’t want to surprise the eggs into bursting. I have a whole bunch of tips on making the perfect boiled egg here, so check that out if you’re interested.

These tea eggs really are an indelible part of the Taiwanese culinary landscape now, though, and lady street hawkers will often sit with a bucket full of these and tiny braised land snails at the side of the road, working their metal spoons down into the snails so that they crunch against each other to let you know what they are selling.

Prick the shells to release the air
My favorite story about these egg sellers came from one guy I knew who was deep in Taiwan’s tropical jungles on a practice mission with the army. His company had clambered up and down hills for what had seemed forever. Deep in a green grove, they paused before working their way forward on their bellies toward their target. 

All was quiet, not a bird was heard. Then, suddenly they heard a woman right behind them say loudly, “Elder Brother Soldiers, you want some tea eggs?” He swears they all leaped a foot into the air, and lucky for that lady the safeties on their rifles were on. But how she snuck up on them while lugging a big bucket of eggs forever remained a mystery to him.

Tea eggs
Cháyè dàn 茶葉蛋
Shanghai & Taiwan
Makes 18 eggs

18 medium eggs, the smaller the better, at least a week or two old, and preferably organic and free range
Water, as needed
½ cup / 120 cc regular soy sauce
½ cup / 120 cc Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons agave syrup, or 1 piece of rock sugar about the size of 2 cherries
Stir the eggs to center the yolks
¼ cup loose tea leaves (I like oolong, but just about any green or black tea works well here, too)
6 slices fresh ginger
3 whole green onions
3 star anise
1 (2-inch / 5-cm) piece of aged tangerine peel, or one strip of home-dried peel
1 tablespoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
(Other spices you can use instead of or in addition to these are fennel, dried licorice root, stick cinnamon, whole black peppers... whatever you like)

1. Start this at least 3 days before you plan to eat them, as they need time to slowly cook and then soak in the sauce. Prick the rounded end of each egg with a tack or pin, as this will allow the air in that cushion to escape, rather than crack the shell. If the eggs are chilled, cover them in a pan of warm water for an hour or two to remove the chill. Then, bring the pan slowly to a boil, stirring occasionally to center the yolks. When the water has come to a boil, the whites will be set, so you can stop stirring. Simmer them for around 5 to 6 minutes – they will cook longer in Step 4, so don’t worry about them being done at this point. Drain the eggs and cover with cool water.  

Make a luscious braising liquid
2. When the eggs are cool enough to handle easily, use the bottom of a tablespoon to evenly smack them all over, about 6 times per egg is right. You want to keep the shells intact, so don’t hit them hard, but just enough to dent them up a bit and create that marbling.

3. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pan – in fact, a crockpot is really good for this dish, since it will take care of business for the rest of the recipe, but a saucepan will also work just fine. Place the eggs in there, and then cover them with water. Bring the pan or crockpot to a boil and then lower to a bare simmer. Cook the eggs with the lid off for a couple of hours in a saucepan, or overnight in the crockpot. Adjust the seasoning after this time with whatever you think is needed. Don’t add more water to the pan unless absolutely necessary, because you want the flavors to concentrate, which means that you want no more than 1 cup / 240 cc of liquid remaining in the pan.

The flavors will permeate the whites
4. Let the eggs and sauce cool to room temperature, and then chill them in a covered container for at least 2 days and up to about 5. Just before serving, peel the eggs. I like to rinse them in the sauce to remove any tiny bits of shell, but don’t soak them in the sauce, as this will erase the lovely patterns. These eggs can then be sliced in half or in wedges, or even served whole for things like picnics. Some people like to heat the eggs up before they peel them, while others like them chilled, and still others prefer room temperature. They’re all good.


To dry your own tangerine peel, scrub the tangerine thoroughly, wipe it off, and then peel off the skin in a continuous strip. Hang it up in a dry area, and it’s ready when the peel is hard. Store in a closed container.


  1. Thanks Carolyn, I'll add this to my list of recipes to try.
    The other day I was talking to my mother about recipes with preserved pomelo skin (yau pei/you pi). I'd love to see a post on that and a recommendation about how to make your own.

    1. Hi Michael. What kind of preserved pomelo skins are you looking for? I've tried all kinds - like candied, or in soups, or stewed - and sometimes it's quite delicious. I think my favorite was a Cantonese recipe where it was braised in a rich sauce seasoned with dried seafood, like (if I remember correctly) scallops. Any information you can provide would be helpful.

  2. Hi-
    It was lovely meeting you and your husband last Sunday. And All Under Heaven is just fantastic! I got home from SF and fell into it. I especially appreciate your meticulous "how-to's", because, I admit, after two decades of cooking, steamers utterly mystify me, meaning I've been missing out on a huge chunk of Chinese cooking, as you well know. As for fermented tofu, your description made me want to make it immediately. Very much looking forward to lots of cooking and reading! Diane

    1. Thanks Diane! The pleasure was all ours. We had a great time at the Les Dames literary feast, and the best part of it was meeting people like you. Thank you too for your lovely words about the book. I hope that it proves useful, and if you have any comments or questions, please feel free to contact me, either here or via email (madamehuang [at] gmail). Hope to see you again soon!

  3. Marble eggs! YES, finally a recipe! I might have to halve it - one person can't eat 18 eggs in one sitting as much as I'd loooooove to try. We have little tea shops in the shopping centre that sell lots of these marble eggs, so I used to get 'em to snack on them all the time.

    1. Go ahead and make 18. They sit around quite nicely in the fridge, and make for happy snacking.

  4. omg. I can't tell you how many of these I fished out of the simmering rice cookers at Taiwanese 7-11s. one of my all time favorite snacks.

    1. I am in total agreement with you there. Just the aroma would drive me nuts...