Chef Mike discovers an ancient Chinese secret that you can make yourself
For most of my life, I had a love/hate relationship with chicken eggs. My childhood and teen years were spent believing that eggs were only to be eaten hard scrambled, deviled, or fried over well and anyone who ate runny eggs was definitely an alien, probably a communist.
But I grew up and put away those childish beliefs, along with my fear of vampires and my faith in the tooth fairy and Ayn Rand books. Along the way I discovered the beauty of a perfectly poached egg, the custardy creaminess of soft scrambled eggs, and the rich smoothness of a runny egg yolk on crusty bread. But a Chinese street cart in Northern Thailand opened my mind, my taste buds and the floodgate of what is possible with a hard boiled chicken egg.
This particular street cart specializes in Chinese tea eggs or Cha Ye Dan. If you’ve never had the pleasure of encountering a tea egg, it looks like something that tumbled out of H.R. Giger’s Easter basket. Sometimes called “marbled eggs” because of their tendency to develop a striking marbled pattern of dark brown or black lines, these street snacks absorb the flavors and color from an anise, cinnamon, soy sauce and black tea cooking broth to create a complex flavor that is shockingly delicious and a look that is straight out of the Hogwarts dining hall.
Having moved past my childhood fears of eggs cooked in mysterious ways, I bought a couple of these ovipositor inspirations and immediately tried my first cautious bite right there on the street. The broth’s heady spices were much subtler than I expected, considering the boldly aromatic aroma rising from the steaming pot of eggs. One bite led to another, which led to another order, that eventually led to me eating tea eggs like Paul Newman winning a prison bet. Yes, they are that good.
Across Asia, there are numerous variations on the “boiled eggs soaked in flavored liquid” theme. The Japanese marinate theirs in soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and sake. In Indonesia, teak leaves are used instead of black tea to make Telur pindan, and in Thailand eggs are added to the braising broth for Khao Kha Moo or braised pork leg, for an added porky punch because let’s face it, pork makes everything taste better. While I love all of these styles, Chinese tea eggs stand out as my favorite.
It’s unlikely that tea eggs will be popping up at PF Chang’s or the Chinese buffet down the street, but the good news is that they are really easy to make at home. Eat them as a snack or as a way to keep the neighbors talking at this year’s Easter egg hunt, but for God’s sake, don’t go another day without having these beauties in your life.
Chinese Tea Eggs (Cha Ye Dan)
- 6 Eggs
- 2 tbsp loose Black Tea (or 2 bags of black tea)
- 1 Cinnamon Stick (or ½ tsp ground cinnamon)
- 4 tbsp Tamari (or dark soy sauce)
- 1 tsp Szechuan or cracked black Peppercorns
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 Star Anise
- 1 tsp sugar
- Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil.
- Carefully place the eggs into the boiling water and boil for 30 seconds
- Reduce heat to a bare simmer, cover and cook for 10 minutes.
- Place the cooked eggs in a bowl of ice water to cool for at least 15 minutes.
- Tap each egg gently with the back of a spoon until it is lightly cracked all over. (If you crack the eggs before they are cold the shell may come off. Also, the cracks in the eggs need to break the thin membrane between the shell and the egg in order to get the cool marbling and for the flavor to get to the egg.)
- Put the cracked eggs back into the pot and refill with enough fresh water to cover the eggs (2-3 qts). Add the remaining ingredients to the water, bring to a boil then lower the heat to a bare simmer. (The broth should be too strong to eat plain. If it tastes bland, add more seasoning.)
- Simmer for 40 minutes, making sure the water continues to cover the eggs.
- Turn off the heat and allow the eggs to soak in the tea mixture for 2-3 hours or remove the tea bags and let the eggs sit overnight after they are done simmering to produce a stronger flavor and darker color.
- Peel and eat! (Just don’t peel until ready to eat to prevent them from drying out.)
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan currently living abroad who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits