The Egg of the Century Mystery

History of Patrice Lewis

EGGS ARE NOTHING IF THEY ARE NOT versatile, embellishing the meals of grateful diners around the world. What happens when your hens lay more eggs than you can eat? Even harder, what if you don’t have refrigeration to handle the extras?

Different cultures around the world have found ingenious ways to preserve
eggs. One such technique is the Chinese “egg of the century”. Alternately called centenary eggs, millennial eggs, millennial eggs or black eggs, they are simply chicken or duck eggs preserved by the chemical action of ash, salt, clay and quicklime.


Century Eggs are said to date back to about 600 years ago in Hunan Province during the Ming Dynasty. There are always “origin” stories that attempt to explain how something began. There are many for the century
egg, from a farmer accidentally leaving eggs in slaked lime to a romantic boy leaving eggs for his destiny in an ashtray. Of course, no one knows. But
here are some distinctive features of the century egg that have been noted
for, well, centuries, most of it coming from the salt used for preservation.

Sometimes what looks like tree rings will be evident when the eggs are cut
longitudinal. The most obvious are the salt crystals that persist on the outside of
the egg and look like pine bows or snowflakes.

Traditional century eggs are coated with mud, ash, rice hulls and other materials that stain the eggshell, darken and preserve the color of the egg.

Although century eggs are primarily associated with China, similarly preserved eggs are eaten in Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, Laos, Cambodia and other South Asian countries. -East.

The process

The process of making century eggs can be divided into traditional and modern (commercial) techniques. Historically, eggs were steeped in an infusion of tea, then coated (muddy) with a mixture of wood ash (oak was considered best), calcium oxide (quicklime) and sea salt. Alkaline
salt raises the pH of the egg to around 9 to 12, breaking down some of the
proteins and fats and reducing the risk of spoilage. Plastered eggs are
rolled in rice hulls to prevent the eggs from sticking together, then placed in tight baskets or jars. The mud takes several months to dry and harden,
how ready the eggs are to eat.

Not surprisingly, modern chemistry has had an effect on this cottage industry, turning it into routine commercial production. The critical step is to introduce hydroxide and sodium ions into the egg, and this process is accomplished with both traditional and commercial methods. Chemically the process can be sped up using the toxic chemical lead oxide, but for obvious reasons this is illegal. If you want to try your hand at making century eggs at home, food-grade zinc oxide is a safer alternative.

Salt crystals left on egg whites form a classic “pine” pattern known as Songhua.

Appearance and taste

The colors of the century-old eggs are striking. Rather than a white shell with yolk and white inside, eggshells become speckled, the yolk turns dark green to gray with a creamy texture, and the egg white turns dark brown and gelatinous. This is called the Maillard reaction, a
browning effect in a strongly alkaline environment. Most popular
century-old eggs (called Songhua eggs) develop a striking crystalline pine
model. The egg white acquires a salty taste, and the yolk smells of ammonia and sulfur with a flavor described as “complex and earthy”.

If you’re put off by the thought of consuming any of these delicacies, keep in mind that a century-old egg isn’t bitten like a hard-boiled egg after being dipped in salt. The egg can be sliced ​​and arranged on a plate like the petals of a flower, with a pretty filling in the center. Or it can be sliced, seasoned with herbs and spices, and served as an appetizer. Or it can be cut in half and garnished with caviar and seaweed. Century eggs are also chopped and added to rice dishes, soups, stir-fries, congee dishes and other culinary specialties.

Still, century-old eggs are an acquired taste outside of most westerners’ palates. However, keep in mind that in 2021 the Chinese consumed
about 2.8 million tons of Songhua eggs (century eggs with pine pattern).
Read that again: 2.8 million tons. That’s a lot of eggs.

“From the first bite, you can feel that it has accents of sulfur and ammonia”, explains an enthusiast. “But after the first taste, you will enjoy a world of very tasty and umami components that are denatured from egg protein under the stress of a higher pH value.”

While it’s doubtful that Century Eggs will ever develop this level of enthusiasm
in the West, it speaks to the creativity of many cultures around the world when it comes to saving excess eggs.

PATRICE LEWIS is a wife, mother, farmer, homeschooler, author, blogger, columnist and speaker. An advocate of simple living and self-sufficiency, she has practiced and written about self-reliance and preparedness for nearly 30 years. She is experienced in the farm
animal husbandry and small-scale dairy farming, food preservation and canning, country relocation, home-based businesses, home-schooling,
personal financial management and food self-sufficiency.
Follow his website or his blog

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