Century eggs or pidan are a Chinese delicacy. Legend has it that a fearless fellow cracked open and ate a couple of duck eggs he’d found sitting in a pile of slaked lime. Apparently they were pretty tasty as the traditional curing method of an alkaline coating of clay, wood ash, lime (the caustic chemical calcium oxide not the citrus fruit) and salt rolled in rice straw is still in use today.
After three months the eggs look like they have been buried for centuries. If the eggs in question are duck eggs delicate snowflake like patterns crystallise on the surface as the white of egg morphs into a translucent amber jelly enclosing the ashen grey, slightly sulphurous smelling yolk. The white is pretty much tasteless and provides a salt-tinged gelatinous texture which perfectly offsets the pungent yet creamy interior. It is this unpleasant ammonia odour that prompted the urban myth that the eggs were soaked in horse urine, but it soon fades once the egg is peeled.
I remember not liking these as a child if they adorned my breakfast bowl of congee or rice porridge, as they most definitely have an acquired taste – like marmite. I wasn’t planning on revisiting my childhood aversion, but as luck would have it panda-in-crime picked a couple up from the market thinking that they were the salted duck eggs we’d had a week earlier. Tastes change and I’d hope my palate is more refined now than when I was eleven, so I decided to make a risotto. Well, my thinking was that it was kind of like a congee – if you can stretch your imagination that far…
RECIPE: ASPARAGUS, MISO AND SESAME RISOTTO WITH A CENTURY EGG
A knob of butter
A couple of finely chopped shallots
Two finely chopped cloves of garlic
1 and a half cups of Arborio rice
A generous handful of trimmed and chopped asparagus spears
A teaspoon of white miso paste
A sprinkling of sea salt and white pepper
A scattering of sesame seeds
A Century egg peeled and cut into eighths
A drizzle of sesame oil
INSTRUCTIONS: Heat up a large pot of chicken or vegetable stock so it is barely simmering. Fry the onion and garlic in butter on a low heat until they turn translucent. Add the rice and stir to ensure all the grains are coated and fry for a couple more minutes. Be sure to stir constantly to prevent the grains from colouring or sticking to the bottom of the pan (its good practise for all the stirring that is to come). Add a ladle of the hot stock and stir until the liquid is absorbed. Add another ladleful and repeat one ladle at a time until the rice is tender and creamy. Meanwhile blanch the asparagus spears in the stock and add to the risotto with a teaspoon of white miso paste. Check the seasoning, spoon onto plates and arrange the slices of Century egg on top. Serve immediately with a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds and drizzle of sesame oil and enjoy…
P.S. If you are game for trying this delicacy beware of unscrupulous manufacturers and read the label carefully, as modern shortcuts can use lead (toxic even in small quantities) and zinc oxide to hasten the chemical process.