Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Breakfast time and some very old eggs

In keeping with my anthropological approach to eating whenever I am away I eschewed the regular looking breakfast items and went straight for the steaming bowl of what looked like wallpaper paste.

Eggs and bacon are all well and good but whenever I eat anything like that for breakfast I feel so sluggish and tired, like I want to head straight back to bed, rest a hand on my belly and watch some inane television. This was most definitely not what I wanted to be doing during my holiday. I wanted to be suppressing boundless energy and racing from temple to temple and market to market. Not snoozing in front of Mythbusters in an air-conditioned hotel room.

So steaming wallpaper paste it was. If this was full of enough goodness to keep generations of Asian farmers fed then I was sure it could keep me sated for the next few hours, no matter how many over-zealous tuk-tuk drivers I had to fend off.

I assumed that this rather unappetising looking gloop was congee, a breakfast staple round the whole of South East Asia. To the side were a number of bowls of condiments. I rather like this DIY aspect of Thai food, being able to adjust your meal to your exact tastes. Like it spicy? Not a problem. Prefer things a touch sweeter? Go right ahead, my good man.

Unlike here in the UK, there is much less differentiation between breakfast and the other meals of the day. It is not unusual to have fried rice or even noodle soup at an early hour, perhaps thickened with a little egg. Congee is made by cooking rice for a long, long time. Occasionally if you fail to put the kitchen timer on and you forget about the pan of basmati bubbling away, it can take on a somewhat glutinous feel as the starches and grains break down. Well, if you do that for about an hour longer then you have congee, almost like a rice porridge.

And it is delicious. It is warming and filling in the way that you would expect from a bowl full of pure carbohydrate but it really comes alive when you get creative with the condiments. The usual array of flavour options are there (salty fish sauce, astringent white vinegar, sweet sugar and fiery chilli) but these are joined by other tasty morsels such as fish balls (balls made from fish, not trout testes), chicken balls (ditto), crispy fried shallots, thinly sliced green pepper and thousand year eggs.

Now, thousand year eggs do appear on my list of things to try but if I am being perfectly honest they are not up there with kobe beef and oturo tuna. They don’t even come as far up the list as a New York hot dog or genuine boudin noir. They are hovering somewhere between deep fried chicken feet and a Domino’s Meateor Pizza – things that I might eat given the opportunity (and if my curiosity was in need of something a little more adventurous), but not something I would go out of my way to nibble on. They are a frightening looking foodstuff. If you took an x-ray of a raw egg, asked a three year old to colour it in and took a photograph of the result, the negative of that photo would look similar to a thousand year egg.

(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

What we know as the white is not white at all. It is a translucent brown colour reminiscent of recycled glass. The yolk, far from being an appetising yellow, is grey. And hard. Depending on how old the egg in question is, the smell can be no more than a tickle of ammonia to an eye-wateringly sulphurous tang. Century eggs tend to be milder whereas the millennial counterparts really are a force to be reckoned with. Governments in need of an alternative fuel source need look no further than these potent little ova.

They are made by wrapping regular eggs (that taste so very good fried or poached or boiled or scrambled) in a mixture of salt, lime, mud, clay and straw and then leaving them. For ages. Occasionally they are even buried in the ground for several months before they are deemed edible. And here they were staring me plainly in the face, at breakfast.

So, along with a spoonful of all the other delicious extras, I gingerly (oh, thinly sliced ginger was in there as well) added a couple of pieces of strange-shiny-brown-grey-sulphur-egg to my congee. For good measure I stocked up on chillis – my rationale being that the heat from these tiny nuclear strength peppers would render impotent the flavour of the eggs, if necessary.

And it was necessary. The very moment I put this odd, quivering brown and grey jelly to my mouth I knew it wasn’t going to end well. The subtlety of the congee was simply lost amid an explosion of rancid sulphur, like a box of old eggs had been cooked in a catalytic converter. Everything about this bizarre foodstuff was repellent – the flavour, the texture, the smell and the appearance. I didn’t listen to it but I dare say if I had, it would have sounded disgusting as well.

Just to make sure I wasn’t being blinded by preconception I tried another piece. That ended up in the same place as the first one: in a tightly folded napkin. The heat from the excess of chilli became a welcome distraction but I can safely say that, as far as I am concerned, century eggs and all their ilk can stay buried firmly in the ground.



Thistlemoon said...

Wow those thousand year eggs do look pretty cool! I have never even heard of them before now.

"Unlike here in the UK, there is much less differentiation between breakfast and the other meals of the day."

That is how I like my breakfasts!

dp said...

It's one thing to try something like durian, a fresh fruit. It's another thing to try fermented rotten eggs just to make sure they taste like shit.

Still a funny story, even if it made me throw up a little in my mouth. LOL

Anonymous said...

if you get another opportunity to try it, try dipping it in sugar. :) I find it a lot more tolerable that way.

Ivan said...

For those that love thousand year eggs, you will love this sweet pastry which is also surprisingly popular.

I personally grew up on this stuff and love egging them (when I can get my hands on 'em) I realize it's probably killed a few of my brain cells...

Anonymous said...

the thousand year eggs doesnt taste that bad for me... i find it quite tasty. i think the taste is depends on who make it... perhaps the one u tasted was not done that well.

i m a malaysian chinese, and at my place alot of other chinese like this eggs as well, some may not like it. Where this egg is from some bird not chicken forget the name though, and was told to have high chlorestrol so is not advisable to eat that often.

btw, is it really being processed for that long as u said?

Alicia Foodycat said...

I love congee, but not with the pigs blood or thousand year old egg. A bit of sliced lup cheong and some sliced green onion does me!

Robin said...

I've heard that Asian people tend to react the same way to cheese when they first encounter it as you did to the Antique Egg. It makes sense, since cheese is basically solidified mould. Tasty, tasty mould.

Just Cook It said...

Jenn - they may look cool but the taste is bleurgh.

DP - I know, I know but I had to find out.

Anon - Looks like it may happen!

Ivan - Thanks but I think I might give that one a miss.

Italee - I guess you're right. Maybe I just got a bad batch.

Foodycat - yup, Congee is super tasty. I'd happily have it for breakfast everyday in the winter

Robin - I see where you're coming from and I really think that sometimes we can be blinded by cultural relativity.

Anonymous said...

Interesting take on these eggs. I actually grew up eating them, and I've grown to appreciate their unique flavor. It's definitely an acquired taste and wouldn't expect most to enjoy it at first!

Btw, I tagged you :)

Apples and Butter said...

Wow. You are much, much braver than I. I consider myself a pretty adventurous eater, even taking part in some chicken feet at dim sum, but I'm not sure I would have been game for those eggs. Great story!

Anonymous said...

Judging by your article, it seems like your disgust of the century eggs are more psychological than based on taste.

It's actually quite good if you get over the smell. And quite addicting too.

Just Cook It said...

Selina - quite a few people seem to be saying that it is a taste that you get used to over time. We'll just have to see...

apples and butter - Thank you very much. I've never had chicken feet but would be super keen to try them.

anon - I try not to eat with pre-conceptions but I think the first time you try anything you are likely to be cautious. Maybe next time...

Katie said...

Omg Id never heard of thousand year eggs, and I was honestly heaving when I read this! Saying that- I will try anything once, I would probably try them out of curiosity even tho the do look like fish eyes in the picture!

Just Cook It said...

Hi Katie, thanks for the comment. They are certainly worth a try, perhaps take into account the comments that people have been leaving before try them though!

Anonymous said...

i think the eggs are an acquired taste, but I can see how for someone who's just been introduced to them for the first time, it can look and seem quite unappealing. I was raised eating them and I find them absolutely delicious! It all depends on the batch and how they're cooked I suppose, maybe give yourself a little time to forget and try it again with an open mind? (Btw, I've never noticed a sulphur smell to them)

Anonymous said...

I like to eat this egg, but only with Worcestershire sauce and may add some lime juice if you have.

I think this egg is not regular food, don't eat them too much.

Sherry said...

Haha, that is a pretty hilarious encounter you had with the egg. I'm a fan of it myself but I've been eating the stuff since young so that also helps. It did take me a while to take it "raw" though so I can see where you're coming from.

But if you're ever adventurous enough to try it again, you might want to get pork and thousand year old egg congee where the egg has been cut up into small pieces and cooked right into the congee. It's a much more pleasing flavor and is one of the more popular congee flavors out there.


eggs. Didn't even know the English name of this egg until saw the pic of that egg. It is very very famous & popular in Chinese culture, and people would love to have it with congee, or sometimes as cold appetizer with soft tofu and top with soy sauce & spring onion :) Althought as Chinese, I have never got the encourage to try it, lol. Good on you!!!