As you can probably tell from the title, I “cheated” again and made two different foods, so my eventual tally is up to at least 199 now. And neither recipe is as simple as “add mint to lemonade” this time, so I had to split them up into two separate posts. This week’s country just inspired me!
When I pulled “Taiwan” out of my little jar o’ nations, my first question was, “I wonder if Taiwanese food is basically just the same as Chinese food, or if Taiwan has its own distinct culinary culture?” It took only a few seconds of research to determine that the answers were, respectively, “no, although there’s a fair amount of similarity” and “very much yes.” There’s a wealth of blogs and articles all about the awesomeness of Taiwanese cuisine, and according to a CNN online poll, Taiwan is the best food destination in the world. All that hype had me pretty excited going into this week! Since it appeared I had landed on a country with impressive culinary credentials, it seemed like a good week to get a little ambitious.
I found the first thing I knew I wanted to make (which I’ll tell you about in the next post) pretty quickly, and it was clearly going to take a fair amount of work, so I probably should have stopped there. But I wasn’t entirely satisfied. You see, while that dish sounded delicious, and contained several ingredients I’d never eaten before to my knowledge, it also sounded comparatively…safe. So far on this blog, everything I’ve cooked has been something that I looked at and said, “Ooh, I’m probably going to like this.” Which is great and all, but since part of the mission here is to be adventurous, I kind of wanted to find a recipe that would make me say, “I have no idea if I’m going to like this.”
There is a little bit of a catch there, of course – while I do want to be adventurous, I’m not quite sure I’m brave enough yet to try anything that registers as “gross” to my Midwestern palate rather than just “weird.” That ruled out the recipes involving pig intestines or “stinky tofu.” (I fully believe that both of those things could be delicious, and I mean no offense to anyone who makes or loves them. I may not be brave enough to consume porcine digestive systems or tofu that’s been soaked in fermented milk brine until it’s as strong-smelling as possible, at least not four weeks into this project, but that’s no reason for other people not to try them!) But then I stumbled on a reference to something called “iron eggs” and was intrigued. Reading more about them made it clear that they matched what I was looking for – there were no ingredients that outright scared me, but they definitely, definitely sounded weird. I had found my second, more adventurous dish.
(I then had to talk myself out of a third dish, because I already had two different time-consuming recipes to prepare, but Taiwanese pineapple cakes – which appear to be pretty much a soft shortbread-type pastry surrounding a jammy crushed-pineapple filling – sounded so very delicious that I very nearly made them too. That’s another idea that’s in my new “dishes I didn’t make but need to at some point” bookmark folder.)
You’re probably wondering what exactly an “iron egg” is. They’re apparently a popular Taiwanese snack, and were supposedly invented by accident. Take it away, Wikipedia:
The eggs were supposed to have been created by the restaurateur Huang Zhangnian (黃張哖) serving snacks to the dock hands in the sea-side town. On one rainy day with less business than usual, Huang Zhangnian had to continually recook red cooked eggs (滷蛋) to keep them warm after taking them out of the soy sauce broth. The recooking and drying process eventually resulted in eggs that were dark, flavourful, and chewy, which was extremely popular with the locals. Huang eventually founded a new business based on her iron egg recipe, selling them under the brand Apotiedan (Chinese: 阿婆鐵蛋; literally: “Grandma’s iron eggs”).
So my mission (should I choose to accept it – which, obviously, I did) was to hard-boil some eggs, and then cook them and recook them and recook them and recook them and recook them and…you get the idea. But first, my mission was to find a recipe for authentic Taiwanese iron eggs in English, which proved to be remarkably difficult. In fact, the only example of such a recipe I could find was this, which…isn’t exactly in English. It did, however, have helpful pictures, and it was the best I was going to be able to do, so I decided to take my best guess as to what the “appropriate amounts” were and see what happened.
As always, I began by gathering my ingredients:
The first step was to hard-boil a dozen eggs. I then shelled them and prepared the sauce in which they were going to be simmered over and over. This essentially consisted of simply throwing all the ingredients into a pot, although I did put the Sichuan peppercorns inside a tea strainer in order to keep them from getting stuck to my eggs. Then the eggs were put in to be simmered for the first time:
They started soaking up the soy-based sauce and turning brown from the moment they were dropped in there. I brought the mixture up to a boil, turned the heat down to low, slapped a lid on there, and let it simmer away for 15 minutes. Then out came the eggs to dry off. (In theory, you’re supposed to let them fully air-dry every time before putting them back in to simmer again, but I’m impatient, so at several points in the process, I dabbed them with paper towels to speed things along a little bit.)
Once the eggs had dried the first time, they looked like this:
That chocolaty color is not at all a trick of the photograph – if anything, they looked even more like they were made out of chocolate in person.
At this point, I paused, because I had effectively just produced a different Taiwanese dish: red-cooked eggs. It seemed like I might as well try one of those before continuing. So I opened it up:
As you can see, while there’s a thin layer of that chocolate-brown around the outside, the interior still looks essentially like a typical hard-boiled egg. It tasted pretty good, too – the mix of flavors was interesting and complemented the inherent flavor of the egg well. But I wasn’t stopping there. These eggs might be hard-boiled, but they needed to get harder. Stronger. Tougher. Cue the training montage!
I simmered and dried and simmered and dried and simmered and dried. Each time, I’d add another half-cup or so of water to the pot to replace the liquid that had boiled away. In theory, I was supposed to cook the eggs ten to twelve times, but after eight times (not counting their initial hard-boiling), I got bored and figured they were probably close enough. (Maybe mine are bronze eggs, because they didn’t quite make it to their iron age?) The eggs were now pitch-black and felt very, very dense, and while you can see in the photos above that they had shrunk quite a bit, it’s probably more dramatic to look at an iron egg next to a regular, uncooked egg:
And on the inside…
The yolks had shrunk and toughened somewhat, and the whites had shrunk tremendously, had entirely ceased to be “whites” rather than “browns,” and were so dense that it actually took some force to slice the egg open. It was not at all hard to tell how these eggs got their name.
And now, it was time to eat them.
Like being punched in the mouth with overwhelming saltiness. But other than that, pretty good, actually!
Wikipedia’s description of iron eggs as “dark, flavorful, and chewy” is entirely accurate. They were indeed very, very chewy – although a single egg is small enough to be “bite-sized,” you almost have to take it in multiple small bites both because otherwise the salt level might give you a heart attack on the spot and because each little bite takes quite a while to chew. The flavor is really quite nice, once you get past the feeling of having just drunk the Pacific ocean. It’s sweet and tangy and, oddly, somehow “eggier” than a plain egg. If you have plenty to drink in between bites, they’re actually not a bad little snack. And they certainly met my criterion of being something completely new and different.
If I were making these again…well, first, I probably wouldn’t make these again, because the lengthy simmer-dry-simmer-dry-simmer-dry process is a bit much to produce what is literally just a handful of eggs at the end. But beyond that, what I’d definitely change is to significantly reduce the amount of soy sauce in the recipe, because I think I guessed wrong about the “appropriate amount,” given how salty the result was.
I might very well red-cook eggs again (probably still with less soy sauce), because while those eggs weren’t as flavorful as the iron eggs, they were still pretty darn tasty, and took a whole lot less effort.
3/4 cup dark soy sauce (do not use this much unless you really, really like salt)
3/4 cup regular soy sauce (seriously, do not use this much)
1 1/2 cups water, plus more each time you simmer the eggs
1/4 cup vegetarian oyster sauce/stir fry sauce
roughly a handful of rock sugar
1/3 onion, roughly chopped
1 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns/Chinese prickly ash
1/2 tsp Chinese five spice powder
5 star anise “flowers”
2 cinnamon sticks
Stay tuned for part 2!