Dr. Seuss’ Sam-I-Am would smile at the sight of these green eggs.
Century Eggs, or 1,000-Year Eggs, are classics in their own right, not a riff on a timeless children’s book. You won’t find them in Sam-I-Am’s house, box, car, tree or train, but these eggs appear in a rice porridge, or congee, that is enjoyed throughout Asia. The eggs in this congee are indeed green, or at least the yolks of homemade 1,000-Year Eggs are. And the ham is represented by bits of diced pork suspended in the rice porridge.
Congee is perhaps the most commonly eaten food in the world. People across Asia enjoy rice porridge with a variety of condiments on nearly a daily basis. That’s possibly as many as 3.5 billion bowls of congee eaten daily. These porridges are often eaten for breakfast or for a late supper or snack, but are also considered the best food for people convalescing from an illness and are acceptable complementary foods for young infants in most cultures as well. Congee is another one of the ancient foods that are also considered good medicine.
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Most often made from rice left over from the previous night’s dinner, congee is made by simply simmering rice in a liquid until it begins to lose its form. Some congees are drier — like prepared oatmeal — while others are more moist — like rice soup. When there is no leftover rice or it has been earmarked for a fried rice dish, congee can be made from uncooked rice. The raw rice is generally washed and soaked before cooking and requires more water and time to prepare. One way to reduce the time needed to cook congee from raw rice is to freeze the raw rice overnight. The freezing and thawing breaks down the rice, and it cooks quickly when compared to unfrozen raw rice. In high altitude or cold areas where rice is traditionally imported, congees are made from other grains or vegetables such as millet, wheat or corn.
Homemade 1,000-Year Eggs
The most wonderful thing about congees is the variety of ingredients used to flavor them, everything from fish paste or bean paste to bits of meat, fish, shrimp or other shellfish, and even snails. Vegetables, especially spring onions and preserved radish are commonly used, but I’ve also seen congees with bits of pickled tamarind and tea leaves in them. Flavors range from sour to spicy, savory and, although not too common, can even be mildly sweet.
The following congee dish features slices of my homemade 1,000-Year Eggs. Also called Century Eggs, pine-patterned eggs, or “pidan” in Chinese, they are made by coating fresh, fertilized but uncooked eggs in a caustic mud casing of wood and charcoal ash, tea, salt, lime and rice chaff and burying the eggs in a soil-lined container outside. Then one lets them sit for three or four months exposed to the elements — longer in colder weather — before harvesting. Leaving fertilized eggs outside in the heat, one would expect them to rot. Instead something magical happens and the egg proteins are transformed by the chemicals in the caustic mud. The usually yellow yolk becomes a dark, forest green, and the clear or white yolk becomes amber to brown — all without cooking.
After the ingredients to make Century Eggs are mixed, the NaOH (sodium hydroxide) is first adsorbed to the surface, and, owing to a change in the osmotic pressure, NaOH enters the egg through the pores and subsequently penetrates the semi-permeable membrane, coming into contact with the egg protein, causing it to become denaturized and hydrolyzed into polypeptides and finally into amino acids.
The result is that 1,000-Year Eggs are much higher in protein and much lower in carbohydrates than unpreserved duck eggs. Other nutritional elements such as amino acids and fatty acids are about equal between the two egg forms, although the preserved egg generally has a bit less of everything in it.
To harvest the eggs, one just need clean them, crack the shells and eat — no cooking needed. If refrigeration is available, they can be stored for long periods. They are enjoyed in congees and soups across eastern Asia, in salads and noodles in Myanmar and Thailand, with tofu and sauce in a number of places, like Taiwan. One of my favorite ways to enjoy them is simply wrapped in pickled ginger as they do in Cantonese cuisine. The flavor of the egg is strong, sort of like a pungent cheese, but it is enjoyable. In this congee, the 1,000-Year Eggs provide accent and interest to the savory rice porridge.
For a detailed recipe on how to produce 1,000-Year Eggs the traditional way, see the “Silk Road Gourmet” website. If making them the traditional way at home is more Century Egg than you can muster, you can find the eggs in most Asian markets. I enjoy the homemade variety because it is less salty and pungent and has far-gentler ammonia aroma than store-bought eggs.
For a middle ground, try the recipe below. Wherever you enjoy the Congee With Pork and 1,000-Year Eggs, whether it is in a house with a mouse or in a box with a fox, I hope you savor it as much as Sam-I-Am.
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- ½ pound pork, minced
- 5 to 6 spring onions
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 2½ to 3 cups short-grain rice, cooked
- 4 to 5 cups liquid (water, broth, or stock, or a mixture)*
- ½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
- 2 to 3 Century Eggs, sliced into quarters or eighths
- Suggested condiments: more minced spring-onion greens, soy sauce, black or red vinegar, sliced pickled ginger, and chili oil
- Heat the sesame oil in a large saucepan. When the oil starts to smoke, add the pork and stir rapidly until it becomes opaque and begins to become firm, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the whites of the spring onions, and the garlic, both minced, and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the liquid and stir until warmed to a boil. Add the cooked rice and return to a boil.
- Lower heat, and simmer covered until rice is fully saturated and begins to fall apart. Stir every 10 minutes or so to avoid burning. Cooking time will vary with the type of rice used and can range from 15 to 20 minutes for sweet rice to 45 to 50 minutes for haiga rice (whole grain, white rice, but hulled).
- When the congee is done, ladle it into individual bowls and garnish with some of the spring-onion greens and the sliced 1,000-Year Eggs. Place a selection of condiments on the table for your guests to choose from.
— The type of cooking liquid can vary depending on how savory you want your congee. One of my favorite mixtures is 2 cups beef stock, 2 cups chicken stock and 1 cup water. The more stock added, the more off-white or tan-colored the congee will appear. Recommend using 4 cups of liquid for regular short-grain rice and 5 cups of liquid for hiaga or brown rice.
— Cooking time will vary widely depending on the type of rice used. Cooking time here is estimated for short-grain haiga rice.
Main photo: Congee With Pork and 1,000-Year Eggs. Credit Laura Kelley