Cooking is a funny thing. Sometimes, you slave over a stove for hours, and the masterpiece is eaten in 5 minutes with a ‘that’s nice’. Other times, a minimum of effort creates seriously impressive results.
I like dishes that fall into the second category.
Cue Chinese tea eggs, also known as marbled eggs.
We served this at the start of our Chinese new year feast. They were snapped up like that. Quite a few guests talked about these eggs til the end of dinner, and a couple of them still talked about it when I saw them a couple of weeks later.
Tea eggs, and the momofuku pork buns, were the most popular parts of dinner (the boca negra was a close runner up). Tea eggs were also the easiest thing I made for that dinner, requiring little active time, and being almost fool proof.
The basic idea is to take soft boiled eggs, crack the egg shell (but not to peel the egg), and boil it for a couple more hours in an aromatic mixture of black tea, soy, sugar, star anise, cinnamon, dried mandarin peel and peppercorns.
And that’s it!
The coloured cooking liquid seeps through the cracks in the egg shell and creates the lovely marbled pattern. The eggs can also be left in the cooking liquid for a few more days. The longer the eggs sit in the liquid, the darker the marbled patterns become. The flavours also seep in, so that a plain boiled egg is transformed into a tasty savoury snack, and a thing of beauty.
The hardest part of making tea eggs is making sure the eggshells are cracked properly deeply, so that the soy and tea colouring can seep through the membrane surrounding the egg. On the other hand, if you over-crack the eggshell, too much cooking liquid can get in so that part of the egg becomes a uniform brown, rather than marbled. The part of the egg with the air pocket is particularly prone to being flooded with liquid.
But even that is ok.
Just cut up the eggs, and make sure the brown patches face down on the plate and the pretty marbled parts are facing up. The guests probably won’t even notice (especially if you are also offering alcohol and sparkling dinner party conversation at the same time).
Away from dinner parties, these eggs make a great mid-morning snack. When friends travelled to Beijing, they took tea eggs on all-day trips to the Great Wall or on long train trips. Next time we go hiking, I am planning to take a few tea eggs – they are like muesli bars, but have less sugar and are gluten free.
Have I convinced you yet?
I’ve made tea eggs so often, I just eyeball the ingredients rather than measure them out. The eggs may be slightly darker or lighter in colour, or tend towards salty or sweet, but they have been delicious (and fool proof) every time.
Without further ado, here is the recipe.
Chinese tea eggs (marbled eggs)
6 to 8 eggs
2-3 tea bags of black tea*
1/2 cup soy sauce or tamari**
1 tablespoon light brown sugar (or Chinese yellow rock sugar if you have it)
2 pieces star anise
1-2 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon cracked black peppercorn (optional)
2 to 3 strips dried mandarin peel (optional – but recommended)
* any black tea will do. I’ve used English breakfast, earl grey and darjeeling with good results. Dark smoky teas like Russian caravan or lapsang souchong will, um, give the eggs extra character (which you might like..) while green tea tend to have a more pronounced bitter taste.
** I like to use 1/4 cup light soy sauce which has a mellow flavour (and is more often found in supermarkets), and just under 1/4 cup of dark soy sauce for colour.
1. Boil the eggs. Use a saucepan large enough to fit the eggs in a single layer. Add enough water to the saucepan to cover the eggs. Bring the water to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer for about 8 minutes. I like to aim for a soft-ish boiled egg, or hard boiled eggs are fine.
2. Crack the eggs. Run the eggs under cold water until they are cool enough to handle. Tap the eggs with the back of a spoon or butter knife to crack them evenly all around. You can also gently roll the eggs on the kitchen counter until they are evenly cracked. Be careful not to peel off the shells.
3. Marinade and cook the eggs. Put the eggs back in the saucepan. Add all the other ingredients, and add enough water to cover the eggs by up to 2cms (just under an inch). Bring the liquid to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer the eggs for 1 to 2 hours. A longer cooking time will result in more flavoursome eggs and darker brown marbling.
4. Eat the eggs. You can serve the eggs once they are cool enough to peel. You can also store the eggs in the fridge for a few days. I like to leave the eggs in the cooking liquid, as this further deepens the colour and flavour (besides, this is what mum always did with soy eggs).
Serving: as they are, or on noodles (these eggs are sorta-kinda like the eggs that I sometimes get as a topping on ramen).
Lastly: after I wrote this post, I saw it fits the rules of the Chinese New Year Virtual Potluck hosted by Diana of Appetite for China. So I’m entering the Potluck, even though as an Antipodean I won’t be eligible for the giveaway or any prizes.