Taiwanese Tea Eggs
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This post is the first in a series of awesome egg recipes brought to you in collaboration with BC Egg. All opinions are my own.
I'm very excited to bring you this recipe. Not only is it a wonderfully simple and amazingly delicious recipe, it's also the first of a series of egg-based recipes that I'm going to be developing this year. I love cooking with eggs in both sweet and savoury settings, and I'm really looking forward to exploring some rather international flavours. I couldn't think of any better way to start than with these awesome, snackable Taiwanese tea eggs.
Taiwanese food holds a special place in my heart. I love Chinese food in general, but Taiwanese food has become my 'adopted' home cuisine. My wife's family is from Taiwan, and dishes like this evoke distinct sense of comfort. And while I didn't grow up with these recipes or ingredients, they've come to represent a familiar, approachable, and homey sort of cuisine for me too.
Tea eggs (茶葉雞蛋) are simple things really - hard-boiled eggs, steeped in a marinade made with tea, soy sauce, and a variety of spices. The shells are intentionally cracked all over, allowing the marinade to seep in slowly and leaving an attractive network of dark lines on the egg white. The spice blend and tea choice varies quite a bit, but the general flavour profile is built around the classic Chinese five-spice mixture (anise, cassia, cloves, Sichuan peppercorn, and star anise). They're a popular snack in much of China, but they're particularly connected to Taiwan in my mind. This has to do with my family of course, but it also has a lot to do with the fact that tea eggs have reached a point of total cultural ubiquity in Taiwan. They can be found in virtually any convenience store there. You can walk into any Seven-Eleven and find a big pot full of spiced, aromatic tea, loaded with these marbled and delicious eggs. They're a delicious, inexpensive, and easy snack. While you're not likely to find them at the corner stores in North America any time soon, they are delightfully easy to make at home.
This recipe take a bit of time, but very little in the way of effort. It's a perfect snack or potluck dish to make ahead of time. I've also included some tips and tricks for better eggs, better flavour, and an optional but highly recommended sauce to finish things off. If you're well-versed with these eggs and with Taiwanese cooking, feel free to jump ahead to the recipe - but if you're looking for a bit more guidance in terms of technique and ingredients, keep reading below.
A Better Boiled Egg
I will freely admit that these tea eggs start out with a departure from the more standard style of preparation that you'd find in Taiwan and mainland China. Hard-boiled eggs are the standard, and these are often hard-boiled to the point where the yolk is very dry and a bit greenish. While those hard-boiled eggs still soak up the wonderful tea-and-spice flavour of the sauce, I've always preferred a more golden and creamy/silky kind of yolk. In order to get that kind of texture and taste, I turned my attention north of Taiwan, towards Japan. From onsen eggs to shoyu eggs in ramen, Japan has a pretty clear love for eggs that straddle that silky-smooth, just-cooked line. Taiwanese people have a special fondness for Japanese food anyway, so I figure it's a good crossover to try out. My wife is the master of those delicious and just-set Japanese eggs around our house (and the master of ramen for that matter), so I turned to her for advice on getting these just right. There are quite a few techniques out there, ranging from steaming the eggs to cooking them in hot (but not boiling) still water, but we went with a simple method here. The eggs are gently added to just-simmering water, then cooked for about 8 minutes. It's pretty straightforward, but there are a couple of tricks to keep in mind to get the best results here:
- Don't skimp on the water: you want a big pot that will easily accommodate all of the eggs. This ensures that all of the eggs are covered, and that the temperature of the water doesn't drop too much when you add the eggs. Either of these mistakes can make for undercooked eggs with runny yolks, rather than just-set ones.
- Don't try to keep the water too hot: the water should be just simmering, not a rolling boil. The latter can crack the eggs, and the hotspots on the bottom of the pan can also cook the yolks more on one side than the other. Related to that note;
- Try to turn the eggs over at about the halfway point: this will keep the heat from the bottom of the pot from cooking one side of the yolk too much. You can also use an insert like a strainer or metal rack to keep the eggs suspended in the water and away from the bottom of the pot.
- Consider your egg size: I like to use large eggs. Medium eggs will cook a bit faster, while extra-large eggs might take another minute or two.
As is so often the case with these things, after I'd started planning I discovered that another great blogger has also tackled the idea of making 'medium-boiled' tea eggs. I was able to glean some wonderful information and tips from the fantastic Woks of Life blog. Be sure to check it out too - there are tons of wonderful Chinese recipes on their site.
A Different Kind of Cracked Egg
I wanted to take a moment to explain how to crack the cooked eggs, because while it's pretty easy to do, it's also quite important to get right.
The idea is to crack the shell of the cooked egg evenly so that the tea and spice marinade can get through to the white beneath. This lets the flavour soak into the egg while leaving a particularly beautiful spider-web pattern of dark lines.
For best results, cool the cooked eggs just long enough to let you handle them comfortably, then gently hold each one in the palm of your hand and lightly tap it all over with the backside of a spoon (see the picture above). Hold the spoon by the end of the handle. I've seen many recipes that recommend doing this with a knife, but that's a lot more likely to break the white and lodge little pieces of shell in the egg. Aim for a relatively even distribution of cracks, without overdoing it in any one spot. Don't be concerned if a few small bits of shell fall off while you're cracking.
In addition to eggs (of course), there are three key components to this recipe - tea, soy sauces, and spices. If you're relatively new to Chinese cooking, some of these ingredients might be less familiar to you. Fortunately, this recipe is a really easy one to get started with, as the spices are left whole and no complicated cooking techniques are used.
As for the tea, I've used quintessentially Taiwanese oolong tea. Oolong is a semi-fermented tea, which gives it a distinctive and delightful flavour somewhere between green tea (which is unfermented) and black tea (which is fully fermented). Taiwanese oolong is fairly popular, and can be found at many tea shops. Oolong tea from China can also be wonderful (and in a few cases, wildly expensive). Tieguanyin is a particularly popular oolong from Fujian, China, that would work beautifully in this recipe.
I love oolong tea as the base for my tea eggs, but you can take this recipe in different directions too. I've seen recipes that call for Jasmine tea, green tea, black tea, and even flavoured teas. All have different characters and will affect the character of the final dish, so choose something you like. Given that the spices are fairly strong and bold, I personally think that a bolder tea (i.e. not a green tea) works best. That being said, follow your instincts.
I used loose-leaf tea here, but you could use a good bagged tea instead. You'll need about 4-6 bags, depending on the strength of the tea.
Many of the spices used here are familiar in the West thanks to the popularity of Chinese five-spice powder. You'll probably find tea egg recipes out there that simply substitute five-spice powder for the individual ingredients, but this short cut makes it tricky to get the right balance of flavours, and it will make for a messy broth (whole spices infuse flavour without leaving crushed bits floating on the surface). On top of that, whole spices will almost always yield you a better and fresher flavour that pre-ground ones, so it's worth it not to rely on a blend that may-or-may-not have been sitting in your cupboard for a few months too long. A trip to an Asian grocery store (or a well-stocked conventional grocery store) should yield all of these ingredients quite easily, and at very reasonable prices.
The basic five-spice mixture includes:
Cassia - There's a solid chance you already have cassia in your home, though it's probably labeled as cinnamon. Cassia and true cinnamon are closely related, and in North America cassia is frequently labeled simply as 'cinnamon,' while true cinnamon is given some other descriptor like Ceylon or Sri Lankan cinnamon. In the EU, cassia is supposed to be labeled properly. The flavours are broadly similar and, well... cinnamon-like. That being said, cassia has a somewhat bolder, more medicinal flavour, with a slight anise-like edge. If you're unsure about packaging, cassia quills will always be tight coils, like a single rolled up sheets, while true cinnamon quills appear feathery and split into many smaller leaf-like layers when viewed end-on. Cassia sold in Asian grocery stores is sometimes quite sheet-like, and not rolled into the familiar quills (see the photo above for example).
Cloves - While this ingredient is quite familiar to most Western cooks, many people rely on pre-ground cloves. You'll want to use whole cloves here - and frankly, once you start using them, you might not go back to pre-ground. The flavour is fresher, and cloves are surprisingly easy to grind with just a mortar and pestle.
Fennel Seeds - A fairly familiar ingredient, fennel is sometimes forgotten next to the bold and edgy flavour of star anise (which is completely unrelated, despite the name). Both ingredients contribute a licorice-like anise flavour, but they differ enough to contribute a different character to the dishes in which they're used together. While you can get away with leaving fennel out of this recipe, you'll end up with a somewhat more one-dimensional anise flavour.
Sichuan Pepper - Despite the annoyingly confusing name, this is not related to black pepper in any way, but is in fact the husk surrounding the small seed from a tree native to Asia. It has a unique flavour somewhere between lemon and pine, but what really makes it interesting is the 'numbing' effect it has on the tongue and lips. This numbing characteristic is considered absolutely essential in a number of Chinese dishes, especially those from the Sichuan region.
Star Anise - The Mandarin Chinese name bajiao (八角) literally means 'eight angles/corners,' a reference to the distinctive star-like appearance of this spice. Star anise is a powerful spice with a strong anise-like flavour. A little goes a very long way.
In addition to the essential five-spice ingredients listed above, this recipe also uses several other wonderful ingredients that are worth learning a little more about. Interestingly enough, some of these also find their way into certain five-spice blends (though the name doesn't change).
Black Cardamom - NOT the same as green cardamom, and definitely not interchangeable with it. Black cardamom is intense, camphoric, and smoky. It's an optional ingredient in this recipe, but I think it adds a fantastic character to the recipe.
Dried Orange Peel - You might find this labeled as dried mandarin or tangerine peel. In actuality, it could be any dried orange-like citrus peel. You can find this at any Asian grocery store, though I personally like to make my own. When mandarins are in season, I like to keep a few really nice peels and dry them out for use in Chinese recipes. I also very lightly toast my my dried orange peel, as I like the character it adds to recipes.
Bay Leaves - Yep, regular old dried bay leaves. Make sure that you use relatively fresh dried leaves (sounds like an oxymoron, but you get it), as they can lose a lot of flavour if stored too long.
Ginger - Simple, fresh ginger is all that's needed here. It doesn't even need to be peeled - just sliced into relatively thin sections. Do not substitute dried ginger, stem ginger, or candied ginger.
Rock Sugar - Not a spice per se, but worth mentioning here. Rock sugar is crystallized sugar cane juice, often sold in large, clear, light yellow pieces. You can certainly use plain white sugar or a pale golden brown sugar, but rock sugar has a great flavour that lands somewhere between the two, and it really lends itself to Chinese cooking. If you're already shopping for the spices, pick some up - it's inexpensive, and easy to find at Asian grocery stores. Rock sugar is easiest to use if you have a small kitchen scale, as it can be difficult to measure volumes. Pro-tip (and weird tip): you can put it in a very durable thick fabric bag and smash it with a hammer if you need to break down pieces for recipes or measurements. If you can't find rock sugar, look for organic sugar, which is also (generally) made from crystallized sugar cane juice.
Dark vs. Light Soy Sauce
As I mentioned in this Chinese pork recipe, not all soy sauces are created equal. Chinese dark and light soy sauces have different functions, flavours, production methods, and appearances.
Light soy sauce is what most people think of as 'regular' Chinese soy sauce. The name has nothing to do with calories or salt, and simply references the comparatively lighter colour of the soy sauce. In the bottle, this colour difference is subtle, but a small amount poured out in a spoon (for example) is noticeably lighter than dark soy sauce. Light soy sauce is almost never labeled as such, but you can generally assume that any Chinese all-purpose soy sauce is or can be used as light soy sauce.
Dark soy sauce is, as the name suggests, darker and more intensely coloured. It's considered a vital ingredient for adding a deep reddish brown colour to many Chinese dishes. Unlike light soy sauces, Chinese dark soy sauces are generally labeled as such.
Now I don't want to give you a false impression here; there's a lot more going on to these soy sauces than just colour. It's tempting to think that dark soy sauce would be more intensely flavoured, but the opposite is true. While dark soy sauce does provide a deep caramel colour and rich flavour, it's actually less salty and a little more subtle than it's lighter, brasher cousin. Using dark soy sauce alongside light soy sauce not only gives beautiful colour to Chinese dishes, it keeps them from ending up harsh-tasting and overly salty.
Note that there are also dark and light Japanese soy sauces. I haven't made tea eggs with these myself, but if you are comfortable with buying and using them, you could certainly give it a whirl.
You can play with the spices and the tea to suit your personal tastes and to make this recipe your own. In addition to this basic level of tweaking, it's worth mentioning a quick variation that lets you make these eggs in only a few hours. If you're short on time, you can peel the eggs and then add them to the marinade, then take them out after about 4 hours. They'll be uniformly dark brown instead of marbled, but they'll soak up the flavour a lot faster. If you do use this method, be sure to remove all of the eggs once you're happy with the flavour, as they'll continue to soak up the marinade and become stronger tasting if left much longer.
Nutritional Information is shown for a single egg, plus some of the tea-sauce reduction.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
Taiwanese Tea Eggs
- 12 large eggs
- 6 cups water (1500 ml)
- 2 cm ginger (~3/4 inch) sliced
- 2 tbsp light soy sauce
- 3 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 2 tbsp oolong tea (see note)
- 3 star anise pods
- 1 small piece cassia (~3 inches) or cinnamon
- 3 bay leaves
- 5 cloves
- 1.5 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp fennel seed
- 10 g rock sugar (or 2 tsp golden/light brown sugar)
- 1-2 pieces dried orange peel (optional)
- 2-4 black cardamom pods (optional)
Tea Sauce Reduction (Optional)
- 3/4 cup spiced tea marinade (190 ml) from above
- 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 15 g rock sugar (or 1 tbsp golden/light brown sugar)
- 2 tsp glutinous rice flour
- Combine water, spice mix, soy sauces, ginger in a large pot (basically everything but the eggs and the tea). Bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes, then remove from heat. Add tea leaves to the hot liquid, set aside, and allow to cool.
- Make and set aside an ice bath for the eggs. A large bowl with cold water and a few ice cubes will work.
- Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil, then reduce heat to a very low simmer. Gingerly place the eggs in the pot (ensuring that they're covered with water). Simmer for 8 minutes, then remove from heat and place in ice bath. See the note below about the doneness of the eggs, as you can make some adjustments based on personal tastes here.
- Take each egg in one hand and use the backside of a large spoon to crack the surface of the egg shell all over. Simply hold the spoon and gently whack the shell all over, rotating it in your hand in order to cover the shell. Note that if you've made the softer boiled eggs described in the steps above that you'll need to take extra care not to hit or squeeze the eggs too hard, as they'll break more easily than a truly hard-boiled egg.
- Add the cracked eggs to the liquid and marinate for at least 24 hours (or even longer for a particularly strong flavour - I personally like them after about 48 hours).
- (Optional Special Trick Step) Try this if you're looking to get a bit more marinade flavour in the egg - including the yolk. After the eggs have been in the marinade for about 12 hours, take them out and GENTLY press down on them against a hard surface (e.g. a cutting board). The idea is to crush them enough to break open a bit of a fissure in the egg white itself, but not so hard that you ruin the egg. Err on the side of caution. Return the eggs to the marinade and let them sit for another 12-36 hours.
Tea Sauce Reduction (Optional)
- Combine 3/4 cup marinade, 1 tbsp dark soy sauce, and 15 g (1 tbsp) sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Turn the heat down so that the mixture is at a low simmer and reduce the sauce by about half. Whisk in the glutinous rice flour, remove from heat, and set aside to cool. Drizzle the sauce over eggs, or place in a small dish for dipping.