Why Would Anyone Eat a Century Old Egg? A Reflection on Anti-Asian Racism and Reclaiming My Chinese Culture Through Making Pidan.

Ariel reflects on anti-Asian racism and how she is reclaiming her culture through food.

I eat Century eggs because they are delicious. The bouncy egg whites coupled with the rich, custardy yolk is a marvel for the eyes and taste buds. Like milk aged into cheese, fermenting these eggs creates a beautifully unique and complex flavour. Some prefer to eat it alone with a drizzle of vinegar, but my favourite way to eat them is in congee with pork. For myself and many others, this dish represents the warmth of home and is the love language of our parents. It is a food that I always turn to in times of hardship.

Since its antiquity, China has greatly valued gastronomy and to its people, to be fed is to be loved. In Chinese, the century egg is called 皮蛋 – pidan (lit. Skin Egg) due to its springy texture. It can also be called 松花蛋 – songhuadan (lit. Pine Flower Egg) referring to the beautiful snowflake pattern that forms from salt crystals in the egg. I’ve always wondered who came up with the name “century egg”. Although there are no sources I could find, I suspect it was an unknowing western man in the 1800s who saw it in China and decided “it must be 100 years old!” In reality, the eggs are only fermented for a few weeks to months at a time, depending on the recipe.

Century Egg: Origin, Taste, Benefits & Preparation | Travel Food Atlas

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The story of how pidan came to be is similar to many foods: serendipity and chance. One story says that 600 years ago, a man discovered some duck eggs sitting in a pond of quicklime (a chemical widely used to make cement)  used for building his house a few months back. He decided to try the eggs and even added salt the next time to enhance its flavour profile. Another folktale goes that a young duck farmer left eggs for a girl he liked in a shallow pool in her garden. She discovered the eggs a month later and they had turned into pidan

Over the years people have refined the taste and one traditional recipe  consists of a mixture of clay, wood ash, quicklime, and salt is applied to duck eggs which are then left to ferment. It’s incredible to think of the resourcefulness of our ancestors, people who never wasted anything and found innovative ways to preserve food for times of scarcity.

In the western world, pidan is one of the most contentious Chinese foods out there. Do a quick search on YouTube for “Century Egg challenge/taste test” and one will find thumbnails of vomit emojis and (mostly white) people clutching their throats. Pidan is so infamous that it has even made it on TV being featured in various skits that use the dish as a gag. James Corden has done it, Fear Factor has done it, even an Australian morning show has done it. Additionally, Chinese cuisine is featured most prominently out of all cuisines at the Disgusting Food Museum. So hilarious and entertaining right? Look at this weird food and the weird people that enjoy eating this!

I fully understand that pidan is not everyone’s favourite. Just like blue cheese, it is an acquired taste. That’s perfectly fine. What isn’t okay is reducing cultural food into a joke and mocking it for the sake of entertainment. The reality is that this type of media cements racist rhetoric into the subconscious of society. It reinforces the pre-existing stereotypes that hurt and oppress the Asian diaspora every day. These stereotypes label our food (and people) as dirty and use us as scapegoats for diseases. With the pandemic, we are seeing more clearly than ever the real life implications of this toxic discourse. To me, the most frustrating thing is that the people in these videos never spare a thought as to how their actions contribute to racism. They never consider the power structures in media (and the broader society) that allow them to make these jokes about cultural food. Think of all the people who knew about this skit from production to editing; at no point was there a consideration that this type of comedy might be harmful. They think it’s all innocent fun and if anyone tries to tell them otherwise, the best “apology” they can offer is “We don’t want to upset anyone“.

Then there are the (mostly white) people who “discover” our food, make it “better”, then decide to profit off of it and proclaim themselves cultural experts. The whole concept of cultural appropriation should not be about who can make or eat what food, it should instead be about power, profit, and credit. Who is making this food? Are they advocating for the people behind this food? Do they claim they are now the masters of said cuisine? 

One recent example of this is “Congee Queen making congee more “palatable” for white people. Another is Lucky Lees, a restaurant that made Chinese food “cleaner” and less “icky” (they are closed now). Both women decided to make “ethnic” foods better, but for what purpose? And for whom? What are their marketing tactics really saying? The labelling of Chinese foods as “icky” and the subsequent appropriation are two sides of the same coin. They are just physical manifestations of racist stereotypes.

Many children of immigrant families remember being and are still mocked for bringing “weird-smelling” food to school. I remember asking my mom to make me sandwiches after one boy told me to go back to China and be a rice farmer. As a child, these experiences resulted in me  internalizing racist beliefs that labeled me and my culture’s food as gross. It didn’t matter how much I enjoyed eating them. As I grew up, I have moved past eating only sandwiches at lunch but I’m still aware of a sense of shame that always permeates my thoughts. Will my coworkers think my food is weird? What if no one touches the dumplings I made at the party?

Like many others, I was heartbroken after the targeted shooting of Asian women in Atlanta earlier this year. Many of us had been shouting from the rooftops (even more so since the pandemic began) that the old stereotypes and jokes about Asian people can have tragic real-life consequences. Sadly, it took the deaths of six Asian women for the government and media to pay attention. This is the same media that’s complicit in racial violence and allows “century egg challenges” to reinforce deeply racist narratives. 

For a month after the shooting, I was a ghost. I went through the motions of everyday life yet everything was done mindlessly as if my soul had been hollowed out. I deactivated all my social media and sank into myself. The only thing that kept me going was talking to my best friend who told me about a therapy group where Asian people could discuss and grieve over our racial trauma. It was an immensely healing experience to sit with other Asian women who shared the same feelings of rage, sorrow, and grief. Someone there talked about the food segment on James Corden’s show. I had no idea about it before then. After everything, this was the last straw for me. My anger and exhaustion turned into an urgent need to learn about Chinese culture. I then decided to make the best damn pidan this world has ever seen! And I was going to enjoy them unrestrained with the people I love and counter the hate.

First thing: how does a normal egg turn into pidan? Recent scientific advances have revealed the process. The mixture that coats the eggs contain many compounds that when mixed with water form sodium hydroxide (AKA lye). This highly alkaline compound is the key to the transformation process. It raises the pH of the egg slowly to denature the proteins within, causing the Maillard reaction (same as when we cook with heat)! This process turns some normally tasteless proteins into smaller more complex flavour molecules. The denatured proteins also combine with water into gelatine, creating the jelly texture of the egg. If it ferments for too long, however, the proteins break down completely into liquid. 

The black colour arises from sealing the pores with clay; oxygen oxidizes the egg and turns them yellow instead. The salt and high pH environment also kill bacteria very effectively, greatly extending the shelf life of pidan, much like traditional microbial fermentation. While doing this research, one thing struck me: other countries utilized this unique method of alkaline fermentation as well! Nattō from Japan, Kinema from Nepal, Thua-nao from Thailand are just a few examples. I’m in awe of Asian culture and people for our ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Instead of using clay, I decided to soak the eggs in a solution of lye as this can be easily sourced online. I bought duck eggs from a local farm and some food-grade lye. I soaked the eggs in their alkaline bath for two weeks and then left them to cure in a ziplock bag. The curing step helps to minimize the strong alkaline taste. I tried the first egg a week after I made them; I drizzled on some sesame oil and vinegar and took a bite. It was marvellous! The rich flavour of egg yolk, magnified by fermentation, covered my tongue. Not only that, they were also beautiful; the egg white had turned into a clear golden gel and the yolk was shining with nourishing fats. I rushed to take pictures for my parents and family in China. My nainai said they looked delicious and expressed how she wished to taste them. I promised her I would make some for her next time I visit China. She then praised me for having a ” dexterous mind and hands” and I beamed with pride. 

How To Make Homemade Century Egg?

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My parents also said they looked splendid and urged me to take some home for them. A month later during Thanksgiving, I cracked one open with my dad and we both oohed in amazement; beautiful pine flower salt crystals had formed. I rushed to take more pictures. They were so gorgeous I almost didn’t want to eat them. But my reluctance disappeared when I smelled the congee and pork bubbling on the stove. 

Ground Pork and Corn Congee (Chinese Rice Porridge) Recipe

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The first bite of congee was heavenly. It was the taste of homecoming and comfort. In my mind, I visualized ancestors who gathered before dishes like this. My parents took a bite and said that they were the best pidan they’d ever had. As we rejoiced at my successful project, I felt an indescribable joy for our love of Chinese food. This is the food that nourishes our souls and connects us to our roots. To my parents, these are probably just eggs made by their quirky daughter as a result from her latest obsession. But to me, this experience and shared meal is something I will cherish for the rest of my life.

This all brought me back to why I did all this in the first place. Why is such an interesting and  creative food so misunderstood and vilified? Why do people use the words “fester” and “rotten” to describe it? No one would ever use those words to describe blue cheese or sauerkraut. The answer is obvious but no less sobering: centuries of colonization and white supremacy have labeled Asians as “dirty”. We are mocked, bullied, harassed and assaulted more than ever since the pandemic began. 

Making these pidan was not just an exercise in reconnecting with my culture, but an act of resistance in a society that blames Asian people for the latest plague. I am reclaiming this Chinese food and giving it the attention it deserves. Today I finally see my cuisine and culture for what they are: vessels of love, care, and tradition that stretch back millennia. They are a reminder of the hardships and fortunes of our ancestors — their innovation and resilience. I only hope that one day, our society sees that too.

 

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