Header image courtesy of Daniela Eftimova (via Wikimedia Commons)
Traditional Chinese teahouses—let alone those that sell tea eggs—are hard to come by these days. A nostalgic snack that is prepared by cooking through the egg twice—once all the way through and the second in a glorious tea-infused master stock—the time-consuming preparation only added to the intrigue of the tea egg. Cracking open a warm tea egg was often like peeling back the aluminium skin of a Kinder Surprise—you never know what unique pattern would await you upon shedding the already cracked eggshell.
Growing up in Hong Kong, having a tea egg after school was a fond memory—not only because of the smile it brought to our younger selves, but because our grandparents prepared it themselves or swore by a traditional teahouse to buy them from. Let’s go through the history of the tea egg and where this delicacy was first hatched.
The tea egg (茶葉蛋; cha4 yip6 daan2) that can be found in Chinese communities and Chinatowns around the world is believed to have originated from Zhejiang Province, China. Although there is no clear trace of when and where the idea of boiling eggs in tea was hatched, two stories were circulated.
The first story involves perfectly intact eggs being unearthed alongside 16 other cultural relics in an excavation site. Archaeologists were stunned to find these ancient relics in tip-top shape. Studies then confirmed that the eggs were buried alongside “soul urns” (魂瓶; wan4 ping4) as funerary products and that their finds were over 500 years old. Prior to this discovery, calcified eggs shells were found in tombs from the Han dynasty, which, in turn, inspired the preservation of eggs as cooking technology advanced.
The second story is set in the summertime by the Yangtze River. Scholars speculated that people during the Qing dynasty would experiment with fruit and tea flavours during the warmer months of the year. Simultaneously, eggs were had as snacks and sometimes were boiled in the same pot as tea. Others who could not afford premium tea would extract as much as possible from a limited amount by marinating eggs with tea-infused master stock—a little goes a long way!
Tea eggs are made up of two deceivingly simple components—the egg and the master stock. Yes, you can buy ready-made tea eggs or pre-packaged marinades to steep your eggs in, but traditionalists might shake their heads in disapproval. The best way is to make it from scratch and here’s how the experts do it.
Egg: Experts source their eggs from a local egg store. Medium eggs are the ideal size—small eggs will turn rubbery after cooking for a long time and large eggs will not properly absorb flavour from the master stock. Chicken eggs are traditionally used, but some prefer the flavour of duck or quail eggs.
Tea marinade: If you are not familiar with Chinese cooking, the base of a lot of Cantonese and Fujian cooking is the master stock. Made in large batches and frozen for up to three months, it is comprised of Shaoxing wine, regular and dark soy sauce, brown sugar, and sesame oil. It is then spiced with various Cantonese pantry staples— star anise, bay leaves, garlic cloves, ginger, and cinnamon stick, just to name a few.
What happens in the eight hours of simmering? Sitting in the master stock broth, both egg white and yolk are slowly infused with flavour. The eggs shells are weakened as the egg gently cooks in the acidity of the soy sauce and tea. When this happens, flavour molecules become easier to penetrate through.
Anything! Chinese tea eggs can essentially replace your regular intake of eggs. If you have toast, eggs, and coffee in the morning, you can prepare yours with a Cantonese spin: Have tea eggs instead of sunny-side-up eggs; have Vitasoy instead of coffee; and have mantou (饅頭; man4 tau4) instead of toast. If you tend to snack in the afternoon, instead of having chocolate, why not opt for some Hong Kong street foods instead? Siu mai (燒賣) and tea eggs pair really well. Lastly, if your primary source of protein in assistance to your workouts is eggs, tea eggs can easily take their place—packed full of nutrition and flavour.
In Hong Kong, tea eggs are usually sold in traditional teahouses. When roaming the streets of your local neighbourhood or making a day of it in Sheung Wan or Sham Shui Po, you might just find one or two hidden shops that sell the parcelled delicacy. Office workers usually pick up a quick breakfast from such shops—sometimes they might walk away with a tub of siu mai, another day it might be tea eggs, or just herbal tea.
Tea eggs can also be commercially found in chain tea and herbal shops. Ten Ren’s Tea (天仁茗茶) and Hung Fook Tong (鴻福堂) across Hong Kong all sell a variation of the tea egg. Ten Ren’s Tea sells Assam tea-flavoured soft boiled eggs; although they do not have the magnificent marbling of the traditional tea eggs, the flavour of the tea marinade paired with the gooey yolk is phenomenal and consistent. Hung Fook Tong sells tea-flavoured eggs with Ganoderma atrum—the herbal tea brand never fails to focus and deliver on the health benefits of Chinese herbs, so you are sure to be able to pick up a healthy afternoon snack from here.
While tea eggs are sure to be crowd-pleasers, there are, in fact, many other local preparations of eggs worth knowing about—as a snack, a garnish, or even traditional cultural practices.
Salt-baked quail eggs are usually sold throughout Hong Kong in the winter months. A street food hawker would be stationed—typically by the entrance of an MTR station or at a bus terminus—selling warm sweet potatoes, roasted chestnuts, and quail eggs. Another nostalgic snack to look forward to when it gets colder!
Century eggs are either duck, chicken, or quail eggs that are preserved in a mixture of clay, salt, and ash. It is popularised as a topping in Chinese congees. Its creamy and rubbery texture is not for everyone, but to those like it, a warm bowl of congee topped with a century egg is a match made in heaven.
Chinese red eggs are traditionally made by the family after the birth of a baby. Red dye is a symbol of new life and red eggs are gifted to guests and neighbours to celebrate the joy of having a newborn in the family. Apart from its red exterior, however, it is no different from a regular boiled egg.