Last year, we were fortunate enough to visit Shanghai for about a day and a half. While walking around some of the back streets, we noticed a street vendor selling century eggs…a slightly mysterious food bucket list item for me.
For those not in the know, century eggs are black; but not in a Green Eggs and Ham or Easter food coloring activity gone awry kind of way. They fall into the “challenge” genre of foods…like ghost peppers, Brussels sprouts and the Whopperito.
Wikipedia describes the preparation process as “preserving duck, chicken or quail eggs in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime, and rice hulls for several weeks to several months, depending on the method of processing.”
It continues with what could just as easily be an appetizer description for a restaurant on the outskirts of Purgatory. “Through the process, the yolk becomes a dark green to grey color, with a creamy consistency and strong flavor due to the hydrogen sulfide and ammonia present, while the white becomes a dark brown, translucent jelly with a salty flavor.” Oh, It also mentions that a common misconception is that they are prepared with horse urine.
So. Pretty yummy.
With me standing in front of a shoebox sized food stall in the middle of a noisy street I had a decision to make. After what seemed like fifteen minutes and despite all attempts to channel Andrew Zimmern, I just couldn’t pull the trigger.
It was simultaneously the best and worst situation to be in. On one hand, eating a food that goes back more than 600 years to the Ming Dynasty in the country that invented it had ethereal, even romantic qualities. On the other hand, it was…a street vendor…in China.
Don’t misinterpret that last sentence. The entirety of my decision transcended those two facts, but let’s dig into the thought process a bit more which should simultaneously dispel any prejudicial attributions and raise the fear factor a bit.
- Street Vendor – I have seen a fair variety in the preparation and handling of food, from boiled peanut pop-ups on Pensacola street corners to the tasty stylings of the Toasty Cheese food truck. Eating from mobile food vendors (foreign or domestic) requires a healthy skepticism paired with a fair amount of scrutiny.
- Language – Given that much of our communication with the locals to that point consisted largely of hand gestures, I wasn’t exuding confidence that I would suddenly be able to clearly articulate a growing internal pain was coming from a suspect century egg consumed 30 minutes prior from a vendor I wouldn’t be able to locate if it were the last challenge for the million-dollar prize on The Amazing Race.
- Health – Why would I think something could go sideways? Wikipedia also describes “an unscrupulous practice in some small factories” that “went rampant” in 2013 where “[m]any production factories in China were using copper sulphate, arsenic, lead, cadmium, and other heavy metals and toxic chemicals to make eggs more translucent, lessen odor, smoother texture, and faster curing.”
Wayne’s World wavy line time jump to last week when it came to my pick for a new restaurant to try. Leslie and I had been on a Mexican trend the last month or so and the regret that was the century egg provided a good enough reason to scout some Chinese restaurants.
Now I certainly don’t have the background, analytic data or mental prowess to document a Freakonomics-type correlation, but there does seem to be an inverse relationship between the number of Chinese restaurants in the Chicago suburbs and the variety of food one can actually get in China. Despite what seems like a restaurant in every other strip mall, they have essentially the same limited selections and none of the exciting stuff. Suffice it to say that a few calls to local establishments confirmed that Chinatown was the place to go.
At the top of my Google search for “Century Egg Chinatown Chicago” was Minghin on Archer Avenue. Zomato (formerly Urbanspoon which is a much better name in my opinion, but I digress) gave them a 4 out of 5 rating. One of the reviewers that gave them 5 out of 5 last year specifically mentioned century eggs.
I then perused their 44-page online menu which, by the way, contains some very good food photography, but could not find “century eggs” anywhere. So I called. “Do you serve century eggs?” “Yes we do.” That sealed the deal and Saturday would be the day of reckoning.
In my mind, I saw this going one of two ways. First, I could overcome personal fear and emerge victorious from a hard fought battle with an acrid, sulphur smelling, extremely salty opponent. Alternatively, my body would reject the egg using the nearest orifice (and perhaps others not so near) for discharge. Either way, it would be a good story.
We were seated in one of the small booths next to the front window across from a store with a huge Maneki-neko display. There were perhaps a hundred of the white, gold and red bobcat statues waving at us. Maneki-neko translates to “beckoning cat” and they are considered good luck. However, there was no luck to be had that day my friends.
When the server came by, I asked for a century egg. At first, he didn’t know what I was talking about, so I quickly pulled out my phone and showed him several images of dark eggs neatly arranged as one would serve a peeled and sectioned orange. I don’t recall exactly what he said as I found my nervous anticipation suddenly turning into crushed dreams, but it was something along the lines of “Oh, yeah, we don’t have those.” What??? But, I called.
To be fair, he was nicer than that and went on to explain that they don’t have century eggs as a stand-alone dish. Leafing through the menu, he pointed me to a congee with pork and “preserved egg.” At first I said no thinking my pass on the dish would somehow convey the monumental disappointment I felt to the entire restaurant. It did not. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, I sheepishly asked for a bowl of the congee the next time he came around.
A few minutes later, another server brought a white bowl, the contents of which had an uncanny resemblance to breakfast aboard the Nebuchadnezzar. Visual similarities aside, the aforementioned pork and preserved egg infused the rice porridge with very good flavor. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the porridge I was after. It was what was in the porridge.
I meticulously sifted through the bowl’s contents. Most of the shredded pork was on the bottom while green onion and yellow crispy things adorned the top. Swirling my spoon around revealed varying sizes of dark preserved egg. Overall, there wasn’t much more than half an egg in the whole bowl with the largest single piece being approximately 1/8th of an egg.
After isolating the nugget on my spoon, I mentally prepared for the worst. As the utensil made its way closer to my mouth, several sound tracks played in my head including a drumroll, the Psycho shower scene and that background music spas play. A few short moments later, it was in my mouth and…
…it tasted like an egg. Kind of a letdown, really. Not sure if all the egg’s purported flavor had been distributed throughout the larger pot during the cooking process, but the moment was certainly anticlimactic. The emotional rollercoaster of yes egg, no egg, small egg, regular flavor left me a bit bummed. I took a sip of water and stopped for a moment to reflect.
Hey, there’s always the chicken feet!