Cooking Chinese at Home Begins With the Humble Tea Egg

It’s a ubiquitous snack in Taiwan and China that brings back memories.

I’m about to embark on a serious Chinese cooking endeavor. My inspiration is being fueled, in part, by the publication of two new cookbooks—at opposite ends of the spectrum. One of them, Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking (Clarkson Potter, $35), is a gorgeous trove; if you owned it, you’d feel as though you’d never need another Chinese cookbook for your entire culinary life. Like Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, it’s a foundation-laying book that rewards patience and rigor and encompasses all the nuances of the cuisine.

Meanwhile, there’s also Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes (also Clarkson Potter, $35), which irreverently boasts being “100 percent inauthentic” on the back cover and promises to dumb down even the toughest recipes. The arrival of these two books caused an epiphany for me; while I lived in Taiwan and China for nearly a year and ate some of the best food of my life there, I’d never really tried to replicate anything. That seems like a shame.

So to start the experiment this week, I decided to make tea eggs—perhaps one of the humblest of Chinese foods. A hard-boiled egg steeped in a fragrant braising liquid of soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, Chinese green or red tea leaves, cassia bark (aka cinnamon), star anise, and dried tangerine peel, you’ll find it in any “deli” or small grocer in Taiwan, an everyman’s quick, belly-filling, high-protein snack. It’s like the equivalent of an egg sandwich or an empanada from a New York City bodega. While they seemed very odd to me at first, I came, if not to love them entirely, at least to expect and appreciate their presence in a big vat of the dark-brown broth, waiting to be scooped out, often by a hungry, busy college student on the run.

As I let the eggs, after cracking but not peeling off their shells (to let the broth create a marbling effect; see picture), simmer in the liquid for 40 minutes, I marveled at the layers of fragrance that met my expectant olfactory sense. First is a blatant hit of soy sauce. Then, slowly, the smoky smell of roasted tea leaves emerges, followed by the complexity of the star anise, which becomes the snack’s dominant top note—and filled my house with its singular scent.

After that, the eggs sat in the liquid and cooled in the fridge overnight. The next morning I ate one for breakfast, with some of the liquid spooned over it. It was, just as I remembered, strange and delicious, and, I realized, vaguely autumnal with the cinnamon and orange peel and star anise. It’s my personal ode to the season, and it served as a lovely first step into a month full of Chinese cooking.

Nicole Sprinkle is Food Editor for Seattle Weekly. She can be reached at nsprinkle@seattleweekly.com or 206-467-4318. Follow her regular food posts on Instagram at @seattleweekly.

 
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