Songjiang 'egg king' closely guards his preserved eggs recipe

Tan Weiyun
Chef Shen Boling has been doing nothing but making the centuries-old delicacy for the past 50 years.
Tan Weiyun
Songjiang 'egg king' closely guards his preserved eggs recipe

Shen Boling (left) makes pidan, or preserved eggs, at his home in Xinbang Town. This cooking skill is listed as Songjiang's district-level intangible cultural heritage.

Pidan, or preserved egg, a famous Chinese snack with, to some, an unpleasant smell and an unappetizing black appearance, is what most foreign diners call "ugly food." This dark cuisine that at first glance may seem off-putting, however, is a delicacy for Songjiang locals.

Preserved egg in rice husk is a centuries-old delicacy that has fed generations in Xinbang Town, and its cooking technique has been listed as a district-level intangible cultural heritage. The chef Shen Boling has been doing nothing but making the eggs for the past 50 years.

With his tailor-made tools – a bucket, a homemade fork, and a self-made trough – the creative and skilled food master has earned the reputation as an "egg king" in the town.

"I've got my recipe – top secret!" Shen said with pride. The secret lies in the marinade he invented – food-grade alkali, lime, tea leaves, salt, white vinegar, white wine and other ingredients. The mixture needs to be constantly stirred until it becomes smooth and even, resulting in a muddy brine.

But that was all of the secret recipe he would share. He fell silent when asked the detailed formula including ratio of ingredients or his cooking time and method. "You don't need to know that much," the chef said with a grin.

The eggs are first immersed in the marinade and taken out gently with Shen's homemade fork that won't break their shells. He rolls the eggs onto his self-made trough that is filled with pounded rice husks. The eggs look even uglier when they are covered with a thick layer of brittle, light brown chaff.

They need to be tightly wrapped in a sealed bag, and kept in a damp place for about 25 to 30 days before they are ready for the dining table.

Songjiang 'egg king' closely guards his preserved eggs recipe

Shen Boling keeps a secret recipe for pidan with ingredients including food-grade alkali, lime, tea leaves and salt, which makes his preserved eggs feature slightly chewy and tender egg white and runny egg yolk.

Songjiang 'egg king' closely guards his preserved eggs recipe
Songjiang 'egg king' closely guards his preserved eggs recipe

"Shen's eggs taste really good, different from those bought in the supermarket!" said villager Tao Munan. It has become an annual routine for Tao to ask Shen to preserve duck eggs for him every spring. "In addition, they have a milder ammonia smell," Tao said.

Using a spoon or knife to crack the eggshell, it can easily be peeled. The egg inside will be dark and shiny, with white fractured patterns on the surface.

"Don't worry about the patterns and the eggs haven't gone bad," Shen said. "Instead, the patterns indicate that it is the right time to eat them." The more patterns on the egg, the higher the quality and the better the taste.

To enjoy the best flavor, use chopsticks to pry the egg open from the middle where the yolk is still runny. Take a bite, and you will find the egg white (now the egg black, to be specific) is slightly chewy and tender, with a creamy texture that is salty. Add a small amount of soy sauce to enhance the flavor.

Old patrons like Tao, who are used to eating the preserved eggs made by Shen, flock to the chef's house every March. "It looks like a simple process, but there are many tricks to it," Shen said.

The chef makes the eggs only from March to June. He also adjusts the ratio of ingredients based on changes in time, temperature and environment, to ensure that the eggs have a beautiful color, mild ammonia smell, and no bitter or spicy taste.

Of the many chefs who preserve eggs in Songjiang, Shen is the top on the list. His name is even known in the nearby Qingpu District and as far as Zhejiang Province. "Young people only see the well-presented eggs sold in supermarkets. They haven't seen the traditional way of making them," Shen said. "I'm getting old and hope that this skill can be passed down."

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