Chinese Tea Eggs
I grew up in a rather waspy suburb north of Toronto, where roast beef and potatoes were the norm and every little girl belonged to a figure skating club. Well, almost every little girl…if you know what I mean. After living in the city for a number of years I really didn’t think that I would ever move back. I mean, god forbid! I was all cosmopolitan-like, and definitely wanted nothing to do with that small town I had grown up in. But then one sunny Sunday afternoon, Mike and I just happened to pop by an open house, which was The House, soon to be Our House, and that was the end of my city apartment dwelling days.
On the plus side, the demographics of this area started to change about 15 years ago. There was rapid growth and development in our small suburb with an influx of new immigrants. As you can imagine, this was met with a great deal of resistance from the old timers who had been living in a white bread town for several generations, and now felt that it was being overrun by immigrants, with their signs that weren’t in English, and noodle shops opening up where we all knew a new McDonalds was supposed to be. How dare they come in and take over our town?! Pish, tosh, I say. A little bit of acceptance, please, as we embrace the changing face of our suburban culture. I love that there are an abundance of Asian and East Asian grocery stores and malls within minutes of where I live, because it means that grocery shopping is waaaaay more fun. I still love Chinatown in Toronto, but we have our own type of big-box Chinatown which is within spitting distance of my front door, and I won’t even start to go on about the fabulous restaurants that are near New Delhi Blvd or Karachi Ave.
Anyway, I digress. One day as I was heading back from the movies, as teens are wont to due, we stopped at my favorite Bubble Tea joint for a quick sip before settling in for a night of gossip and girl talk. This shop was my favorite not because they had the best bubble tea (they didn’t), but because it was very affordable and they would always give you a little surprise treat with your purchase. Would it be a toy, today? Or a lemongrass pork pot sticker? No. They handed us two eggs….two mottled, brown eggs with cracked shells.
The eggs looked ominous to us. They smelled funny. And…and it wasn’t even breakfast, everybody knew that eggs were only eaten at breakfast, so were we being given somebody’s leftovers because the shop ran out of GOOD treats and had to make do? Were we about to be tricked into eating poo-colored fermented duck ova? Hey, we were only 15 and sadly we really didn’t know any better. So, we acted like 15 year olds. We triple dog dared each other to eat it, then since it was a mutual dare it turned into more of a suicide pact, so we both carefully peeled our eggs (AND GOOD GOD, THE INSIDES HAD BROWN SPIDERY VEINS ALL OVER THEM AND WE MIGHT POSSIBLY DIE FROM EATING THIS BUT IT WILL BE A GOOD STORY GODDAMMIT), closed our eyes and took the smallest possible nibbles with exaggerated mastications to pretend that we had slightly more courage than we were showing, and…and….and they were good. Like, really good, or hot diggity dang good. And so continued my love affair with Chinese street snacks.
Tea eggs, I know now, are incredibly common and are usually eaten as a snack or convenience food. In China and Taiwan the tea egg is sold warm or cold by street vendors, and millions are bought every year at convenience stores and local grocers. Tea eggs are just hard boiled eggs which are then stewed in a seasoned salty tea. After the eggs are boiled the first time, the shell of each egg is lightly cracked but not removed. When the cracked eggs go back to steep in the flavored liquid, the dark color of the tea mixture penetrates through the cracks in the shell to create a mottled mosaic look on the whites.
As the eggs stew in their shells they start to absorb the flavor of the liquid they’re sitting in, and become scented with tea, spice, and salty soy. The most common teas to use are not ‘drinking tea’, they’re less refined black teas of a lower quality. Generally they’re chosen to have a higher concentration of tannins which lend that rich brown color to the liquid. Green tea is too subtle, and after stewing for so long it gets very bitter so we try to avoid that. Other commonly used ingredients, which many tea egg makers choose to use for flavor, are soy sauce, ponzu, tamari and five spice powder (or a combination of the spices that make it up). You can play with the combination of ingredients until you find what you like, and you can also vary the type of tea that you use. I’ve made tea eggs with Earl Grey before, because it happened to be the only non-herbal tea that I had at the time, and I absolutely loved them.
Serving tea eggs is pretty basic. You peel off the shell (which can be slightly more time consuming because of all the cracks), admire your handiwork and the mottled appearance, and then either bite right in or pretend that you’re more refined by cutting it up into wedges and savoring each bite. Because the eggs have been boiled twice, the yolks will be pale yellow with a thin grey rim on the edge. The whites are firm, and the whole egg will be lightly infused with salty, spicy, scented tea. .
The final beauty of tea eggs is that they store very well, which is why they can be sold at convenience stores without as much best-before trepidation. The salty soy and tea act as preserving agents, lengthening the shelf life of the eggs. If the unpeeled eggs are stored in their tea liquid in the fridge, they will keep for at least 2-3 weeks….probably more, but I do like to draw the line somewhere.
Also, I sincerely hope that you appreciate how much effort it took me to write this without making a single joke about how I was really egg-cited, just yolking, or ova-joyed.
Chinese Tea Eggs
- 6 large chicken eggs *
- 1 orange
- 3 whole star anise
- 1/4 tsp fennel seed
- 1 small cinnamon stick
- 1 tsp peppercorn **
- 12 cloves
- 2 black tea bags ***
- 1/3 cup dark soy sauce
* Salted duck eggs are another delicious snack, but the traditional (and cheaper) way of making these is with chicken eggs.
** Black peppercorns or a mixture of black and pink peppercorns are fine, but if you can find Szechwan/Sichuan peppercorn that’s all the better.
*** Mine are just regular ol’ orange pekoe tea bags.
Start by hard boiling the eggs. Most people have their own technique for doing this, and usually it involves bringing the heat up to a boil gradually then taking the pot off the stove, covering it, and letting the eggs sit in the hot water for 15 – 18 minutes. The thing is, that’s the right way to do a perfect and tender hard boiled egg….but these babies are going to be boiled twice, so any finesse that you’re trying to show will be lost.
In a pot which just fits the eggs in a single layer, pour in water until they’re just covered, and bring the pot to a rolling boil over medium-high heat. Let them boil for 3-5 minutes and then remove the eggs with a slotted spoon. Keep the water in the pot, but turn the heat down to medium low.
Using a regular vegetable peeler or a sharp knife, remove three long strips of peel from the orange – each one about an inch in diameter.
Add the slices of orange peel, as well as the juice of the entire orange, into the pot of hot water. I prefer to use the whole spices instead of 5 spice powder, so add the anise, fennel, peppercorn, cloves and cinnamon stick to the brew. Finally, drop in your two tea bags and portion out the soya sauce. Let this simmer as you crack the eggs.
The eggs will be hot, but seeing as I lost my fingerprints a long, long time ago that doesn’t bother me. If you enjoy having a sense of touch, however, you may wish to protect your hands by holding the eggs in a towel or oven mitt. Using a heavy knife, rap the eggs all over to break the shell. You want a pressure which is firm but rapid when you do this, because although you don’t want to decimate the egg you want to crack both the shell and parts of the membrane underneath. That will allow the tea liquid to permeate more thoroughly. If the membrane stays intact, the eggs will not have such a pretty spiderweb of mottled hues.
Return the eggs to the pot of simmering liquid for another 5 minutes. Then take the pot off the heat, cover it, and leave the eggs to sit until it has cooled completely – at least an hour. The longer they have to sit the more color you will see develop, so if possible you want to leave them soaking in the liquid (refrigerated is fine) for at least 6-8 hours. If you want to serve the tea eggs warm then you can leave the liquid simmering at very low heat on the stove for at least 2 hours.
Tea eggs can be served warm, at room temperature, or cooled. I find that the best flavor is when they’re room temperature. Remove the tea eggs from the liquid and carefully peel off the cracked shell. If you’re really skilled (I’m not) you can try to leave the lovely mottled membrane on the egg when you do this.
Tea eggs make a lovely addition to your afternoon snack, particularly if you have guests over who don’t mind trying something a little bit different. They’re delicately scented, slightly salty and slightly sweet, and if I’m going to eat a hard boiled egg, this is how I do it.
If you want to arrange the tea eggs on a platter instead of cutting them into quarters, it helps to slice off just a small disc from the base so that they’ll stand upright on a flat surface.
Because I’ve turned into a lover of all things tea egg over the last few years, I’ve tried many different variations. Some were incredibly salty and used a lot more soy, some were slightly fishy tasting and others very clearly used ponzu. I’ve had them spiced (with 5 spice powder) or without, and basically what it comes down to is that you’ll want to make them in a way that you like. If you peel and try a ‘test’ tea egg and find out that it’s not salty enough for you, why not add more soy to the liquid and let them sit for another few hours? If you don’t like the thought of 5 spice, leave it out! It’s all about what tastes good to you.