The Origins of the Salted Egg (Imagined)

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A Romantic and Heroic tale for your enjoyment!

Salted Eggs, traditionally made from covering fresh duck eggs in damp, heavily salted charcoal (made into a black clayish paste), has been eaten from a long time ago. Because the egg, salt, and charcoal (often referred to as “Black Gold”) are all strong symbols of wealth and prosperity to the Chinese, the Salted Egg, being a preserved delicacy, has come to powerfully represent Sustained Providence.

In Ancient China, during the time of the first Emperor, there lived an army officer who retired honorably after he got injured fighting rebels. For his heroic act, the Emperor rewarded him with a good pension and allowed him to relocate to a small town by the sea in the Southern regions of the vast country. There he lived a very peaceful and contented life in a modest house with his wife, four young children and his own aged parents. After a time however, because of corrupt officials who withheld his pension payments, his family fell into relative poverty and he took to being a woodsman in the forest behind his house, cutting wood for a living. His old injuries bothered him from time to time but he was brave and hardworking and never one to complain or become reliant on others. He could still wield a heavy axe as skillfully as anyone much younger and fitter than himself.

One day while he was working in the forest, he heard a huge commotion from a deeper part of the forest and soon saw a mean gang of bandits chasing after a young frightened woman. Retired or not, his sense of honor and valor naturally demanded that he intervene and make a stand for justice. So, hefting his heavy axe he charged to the scene, fought off the evil men and rescued the woman. The bandits were surprised by his sudden fierce intervention and decided that they were not his match and that it was not worth their efforts to fight such a skilled warrior. After all, they have already killed the young woman’s husband and robbed the couple of whatever little silver they were carrying. And so they quickly made off into the deep forest, but not before inflicting some seemingly superficial wounds on the woodcutter hero.

The young lady was inconsolable and wept for a good long time. The woodcutter offered to take her home to his family but she refused and insisted on setting off by herself to a distant town from whence she had come. To ensure she was safe he escorted her out of the forest and to the common road just outside the next town. Before she left, she gave the woodcutter a small basket of carefully packed fresh duck eggs, the only possession of worth she has left, as a token of her gratitude for his coming to her rescue. He would have refused the gift if not for her persistence and how she began to sob again when he declined to receive the basket.

Heading home, the woodcutter noticed the gash on his left forearm which he sustained from his fight with the bandits. Not wanting to worry his wife and family, he bound up the wound and decided to hide the basket of duck eggs in the wood shed behind his house. He carefully removed the eggs from the basket and hid them below a big stack of charcoal, thinking to himself that he would make up a story to his wife the next day for how he came by the eggs. It would make a welcomed meal for his family the next week since it was going to be the Lunar New Year.

Sadly, a high fever came upon him that very night because the gash on his forearm that he suffered from one of the bandit’s knives was laced with lethal poison. By the middle of the night he was quite delirious and just before he breathed his last, he confessed to his wife the adventure he had that afternoon. He had no regrets for what he did out of justice and was only very sorry he could no longer provide for his family. The woodcutter’s wife was distraught and while she was still mourning him the next night, greater tragedy struck as some stray fireworks from a neighbor’s pre-Lunar New Year celebration landed upon the roof of their wood shed and a huge blaze started.  Fortunately, the neighbors were alert and managed to fetch seawater to put out the fire and prevented it from burning down her house as well, but not before completely dousing and drenching, ruining all the wood stocks that were stored in the wood shed. 

A few days later on the eve of the Lunar New Year, while the woodcutter’s family have barely just finished mourning him, two visitors showed up at the door of the woodcutter’s house. They appeared to be relatively wealthy though simply dressed and claimed to be merchants from another town seeking a simple place to just rest for the night and if perhaps a simple meal for which they were willing to pay a good sum of money. The woodcutter’s wife was a good natured woman, generous, hospitable and kind like her husband and seeing that it was late and that the travelers were not dangerous looking, decided to put them up in the spare room in her house. This she did in spite her grief for her dead husband and also because she was thinking that she needed money to continue to feed her family and saw the visit by these two strangers as a kind of divine providence in their hour of need.

SaltedDuckEgg-TheLittleTeochew-RMBut she had very little food left to offer the travelers and was wondering what she could do when she suddenly remembered about the duck eggs which the woodcutter told her about just before he died. So, fighting back the tears that were threatening to well up in her eyes, she made for the burnt out wood shed and after a brief time of digging around found the duck eggs that were hidden below the big stack of charcoal. The eggs were still soaked and covered in a very thick crust of “salted” charcoal. She wondered if the eggs, now dirty and all black could still be eaten and how she could even serve them to her visitors, but since she had little choice, she decided to wash off the black charcoal crust and boil the eggs. After boiling the eggs a good long time, she hesitantly served them to her guests with some porridge. She almost dashed out of the room, after setting the simple meal on the table, afraid of how the guests would react to the questionable eggs.

After but a few moments, she heard loud shouting from the guests’ room. They were urgently calling for her. Fearing for the worst, that the eggs she served them might have already gone rotten, she braced herself and re-entered the guests’ room. The first thing she noticed in spite of preparing herself to receive a huge scolding from her guests, were that they did not look in any way to be angry. In fact, they were beaming with huge smiles and with great appreciation expressed how impressed they were with the simple duck eggs she has served them. In her nervousness, she did not even dare to break open the shell of the hard boiled eggs. SaltedDuckEgg1-RM

Now however, she noticed for the first time, that the eggs which her visitors have broken open themselves and began to eat, was white and creamy with a beautiful, smooth and almost gel-like texture and the yolk was a bright rich golden yellow-orange, almost translucent like a magnificent giant pearl. Contrary to what she had expected, her guests were exceptionally happy with the eggs she served and praised the genius of her culinary skills, seemingly way out of proportion to the absolute simplicity of the meal she had prepared for them. They exclaimed to her that the egg white was remarkably smooth, fragrant and salty, and the egg yolk was rich and full of flavor, tasty and nutty. It provided a perfect combination when eaten with the plain white porridge she served and for that they offered to reward her richly! It was then that the woodcutter’s wife could no longer contain herself and as she sobbed she recounted her husband’s story to the guests and how the eggs came by.

The two strange visitors listened carefully and in silence until she completed her story and then, standing up, one of them threw off the heavy travelling cloak he was wearing and revealed his true identity to her. He was exceptionally majestic and now seemed way much taller than she had at first noticed. Dressed in magnificent deep yellow clothes embroidered with dragons and adorned with real gold, pearls and other precious stones, like nothing she has ever seen before, he was in fact the very Emperor himself, disguised as a simple travelling merchant with his personal attendant who until then acted as his business partner. Together, they were going about the country, especially the far southern region where the woodcutter’s house was, far from the Emperor’s palace in Central China, seeking to learn about the true livelihood of the common folks under his rule.

The Emperor upon his return to his palace, had the evil and corrupt officials who have cheated the woodcutter of his pension rounded up, punished and replaced with just men. The woodcutter’s wife and family were fetched and provided with a new home near the palace, filled with servants and every provision they ever need, in recognition and honor of the woodcutter’s heroism and service to the kingdom. 

From that time onward, the Salted Duck Egg became a royal delicacy served at the Emperor’s dining table. It has since been enjoyed by rich and poor folks alike, in fact not just in China but across the whole world. The golden yellow-orange egg yolk in particular, has become a precious and integral ingredient in countless recipes across Asia and has inspired many wonderful culinary creations. It can be found in very delicious delicacies and dishes such as  Salted Egg Crabs, Salted Egg Butter Prawns, Crispy Tofu with Salted Eggs1, Mooncakes, Salted Egg Cookies, etc, etc!

In recent days, the Salted Egg and its beautiful symbolism has inspired the creation of a whole series of exquisite Artworks.


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Reference

1   http://www.thelittleteochew.com/2010/06/crispy-tofu-with-salted-eggs.html