Priscilla & the Thousand Year Eggs


Our friend Jon has a new girlfriend. Actually, she’s not all that “new” — they’ve been dating about a year now. But it took six months for him to introduce her to us. Before that, the only evidence of her existence was dumplings. And by that measure, things weren’t looking good.

“Do you want some dumplings?” Jon said one day at the kids’ school. “Priscilla dropped them by my house.” He led me down to his truck and opened the back. It felt illicit, like it was high school and we were going to drink a beer or smoke some pot. He pulled out some big bready bao and a couple cold pork dumplings whose steamed wrappers were crumbling off.

“These aren’t very good,” I mumbled, the bao having sucked all the moisture from my mouth.

“I know,” Jon replied.

But then we met Priscilla, and she was funny and pretty and lovely. I gave Jon a high five. Best of all, Jon’s kids seemed to love her, which is always a good sign.

Priscilla is Taiwanese — which to us westerners basically just means she’s Chinese. Chinese people tend to draw out the stupidest questions from me; things I’m embarrassed even come out of my mouth:

“Do you like to go to Chinatown?”
“Why do Chinese markets smell so weird?”
“Where is your favorite place to go for dim sum?”
“Why is soy sauce so dark?”

I never ask my Mexican friends if they like to eat beans. But there’s something so foreign and exotic about Chinese culture that it makes even the most inane queries seem justified. “The country totally smells weird,” my sister Andrea said after returning from her husband’s MBA trip to Hong Kong and spending a day in mainland China. I imagine the commingled scents of star anise, garlic, fermented fish and live poultry, just like at the Chinese markets.

“I’ve been reading your blog!” Priscilla recently told me. “I love it!”

One of the nice side effects of people reading my blog is that I’m often gifted interesting foods and ingredients (in addition to various bad gadgets). “I got you some things,” Priscilla continued, and Jon’s face went flush. “Have you ever had 1000-year duck eggs?” she asked, and I understood Jon’s reaction.

“I gagged,” he said matter-of-factly, “when she made me try them.”

Fermented duck egg art shot

Fermented duck egg art shot

1000-year duck eggs aren’t actually a thousand years old. They’re more like 100 days old. And where in centuries gone by they would be wrapped in leaves, salt and clay, today they’re cured in a brine and wrapped, like everything else, in plastic. For some reason I thought I had tried them. But then wondered if maybe I was confusing them with Chinese tea eggs. Anyway, in general, I like fermented and slightly funky flavors, I said.

“They’re kind of an acquired taste,” Priscilla admitted. “I like them on tofu with minced scallions and bonito flakes.” That sounded like something I could get behind. She also recommended them with lean pork in a congee, which is one of my favorite things on a Sunday morning. I was getting excited to receive and try my new foodie gift.

And then, a few days later, Jon showed up with the eggs.

“Here you go,” he said. “Have fun.”

In a styrofoam container were six eggs. Before I opened the container several days I later, I made the mistake of watching a variety of Westerners in videos on YouTube gag, choke and heave after sampling the eggs, usually as a dare. But I was undeterred — I might not be Anthony Bourdain, but I am a chef and a fairly intrepid diner, for goodness sakes! I wouldn’t be strong-armed by something so innocuous as an aged, fermented duck egg.

Tofu with (carefully hidden) fermented duck egg

Tofu with (carefully hidden) fermented duck egg

Gingerly, I cracked one open. The first thing you must do, if venturing into the inside of a 1000-year duck egg, is to steel yourself against the sight of the egg white inside, which is not white but instead black. You are hit fairly immediately with the scent of sulfur, which is not altogether unpleasing. Cut the egg in half, and you are presented with the yolk — which is a striated gray/green, like some core of exotic marble or granite extracted from the bowels of the earth. Get the half egg in the light, and you realize that the black white is not actually black but a very deep amber — geological analogies once again apply.

For my first foray into this foreign world, I would try Priscilla’s tofu suggestion. I pan fried a block of soft tofu, topped it with chopped onion and greens, drizzled it with soy sauce and sesame oil, and sprinkle some bonito flakes on top. Oh, and yes… buried somewhere beneath the condiments, a generous pile of sliced 1000-year duck egg.

How was it?

The texture of both the white (black) and the yolk are not dissimilar to a hard-boiled egg. So the boinginess and creaminess, respectively, were a welcome textural contrast to the tofu and greens. However, the flavor was largely masked by everything else happening on the plate. (Which perhaps, I thought, was the key to enjoying a fermented duck egg.) Every so often I got a little blast of sulfur taste, which in its context was not disconcerting.

I decided that in order to truly gauge my feelings about the 1000-year duck egg, I must taste it alone. I took a very small bite of raw, naked egg. The sulfur I now found yielding to ammonia, and not so enjoyable – akin somewhat to shellfish that is past its prime. Unlike some of my YouTube compatriots, I didn’t bury my face in a napkin or leap up and sprint for the bathroom. But I did not take a second bite.

My sense of either a.) adventurousness, or b) obligation compels me to give the fermented duck egg a second chance, perhaps in some congee. But there’s no need to rush — it’s not like they’re going to go bad if not eaten in the near future.

That Priscilla might not be discouraged from gifting me exotic Asian food items in the future, I did like the shrimp chips that accompanied the 1000-year egg gift. And there are numerous other weirdly exotic items from the Chinese pantry that would receive a welcome reception in my kitchen: dried scallops, Szechuan peppercorns, star anise, fermented black beans, XO sauce, black vinegar, dried lotus leaves…

Don’t be discouraged, Priscilla — I’m not!

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. glennis
    Feb 15, 2013 @ 17:29:11

    I’m not sure I’d be ready for that!


  2. Jessamine in PDX
    Feb 15, 2013 @ 23:48:11

    Oh! I’ve actually had some of those eggs in congee — first time for both actually. I was at dim sum with a friend and we’re both big believers in always trying one new dish every time we go. This has led to wonderful discoveries…and one epic failure. I don’t know if I’m really a congee person, but I can tell you I know for sure that I am NOT a lover of the preserved egg. It gives me shivers thinking about it.


    • scolgin
      Feb 15, 2013 @ 23:56:04

      Yeah, it’s pretty gnarly. Probably right up there with those Japanese fermented squid guts or that Sardinian cheese with the live larva in it. If you’re ever in Southern California around breakfast time, I’ll prepare you a congee that will make a believer of you.


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