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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Tea leaf eggs (cha ye dan)

When I was a really little kid--like two, or three, or five, or so--my mother would pull out this embroidered green bag from the linen closet, stuff it with towels and sunscreen, and put it in the back of our old Datsun station wagon with a straw beach mat and a picnic cooler. We'd all put on our swim suits and drive out of Hahaione Valley, our quiet neighborhood in the suburbs of Honolulu, to Hanauma Bay, a lovely moon-shaped beach that used to be pleasantly sociable and nowadays is a huge tourist attraction. (It's still lovely. It's just crowded! And hard to park! And they charge admission!) We'd park up at the top of the road and walk a long way down a sloped, winding path to the beach. Once we'd spread out our beach mat, Mom would slather me with sunscreen while I squirmed and whined to get in the water, and then she in her glamorous one-piece or Dad in his awfully-short trunks would walk me into the waves.

I remember loving that water so much, bobbing in the gentle waves, peering at the fish that brushed our legs and terrified my big sister. Once there was a shark sighting, and everyone was warned to get out of the ocean, and I screamed and cried that I didn't care if a shark got me, I just wanted to stay in.

Here's a grainy old picture of me at the beach circa, oh, 1980 or so. See how pissed I look? That's probably because I'm not in the water. Stupid shark sightings.

Eventually, salt in my hair and eyes stinging from trying to see under the water, I'd trundle back to our spot on the sand and Mom would unpack the cooler. There might be anything from turkey sandwiches to pasta salad to potstickers in the cooler, but there would always be what she called soy-sauce eggs, one of my absolute favorite treats. Satiny, savory, perfectly umami: there was never a time, not through my endless picky-eater phases, when I wouldn't be thrilled to eat them. Mom made them by hard-boiling eggs, peeling them, and then letting them sit, overnight or longer, in a briny mix of soy sauce, star anise and strongly brewed Lipton tea.

The tea eggs Adam made for yesterday's congee are a fancy, grown-up cousin of my mom's soy-sauce eggs. They use loose-leaf lapsang souchong, a smoky black Chinese tea--no tea bags here!--and cinnamon sticks, fennel seeds and peppercorns along with the star anise. Also, before the eggs are totally hard boiled, the shells are cracked all over but left on, so that the tea brine creates a delicate veined pattern, similar to a crackled porcelain glaze, all over the surface of the eggs.

If you don't love the flavors of star anise and fennel seeds, you can leave them out of the recipe and still get the beautiful pattern and a nice subtle smoky-salty flavor. If you're on the fence, though, try it with at least the star anise: it's pretty integral to the traditional character of these eggs.

Adam used this recipe from Saveur, originally published there in 2012.

Tea Eggs 

1/2 cup soy sauce1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
8 whole cloves
2 whole star anise
2 sticks cinnamon
1 tablespoon loose-leaf smoked tea, such as lapsang souchong 
8 eggs

Bring soy sauce, sugar, peppercorns, fennel, cloves, star anise, cinnamon, and two cups water to a boil in a saucepan; remove from heat and add tea. Let steep for 10 minutes.

Pour marinade through a fine strainer into a bowl and keep warm. Place eggs in a 4-qt. saucepan; cover by ½″ with cold water.

Place saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil; cover pan, remove from heat, and let sit until eggs are soft-boiled, about 5 minutes.

Drain eggs. Crack shells all over but do not peel eggs; return to saucepan along with marinade.

Bring to a boil and let cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

Remove from heat and add 2 cups ice. Let cool in marinade before serving. (We actually left our eggs overnight in the fridge, sitting in the marinade, in a quart Mason jar.)


Here's how they look all peeled and pretty. The longer you leave them in the marinade, the darker the marbling and more pronounced the delicious flavor. 

Today Adam reheated yesterday's bai zhou, or plain white congee, for me, with some of the remaining sauteed beet greens and shiitake mushrooms. He tucked a cold tea egg underneath the hot congee, and it was warmed up and perfect by the time I broke into it. Here's a photo of today's breakfast, and you can see, if you compare it to yesterday's, how the congee gets progressively smoother and creamier as it reheats (or cooks longer).

A dab of sesame oil, a dab of tamari, a dab of homemade sriracha, and I'm in heaven. 

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