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.