Chinese Steamed Eggs
It is interesting sometimes to consider the threads that run through one's life. We all have interests we've accumulated that have nothing to do with what has gone before, but there can be a special gladness in making connections from old loves to new.
When I was a child, one of my favorite books was Little Pear, which had been my mother's book when she was a child. It related the adventures of a little boy growing up in China. I remember quite vividly Little Pear's favorite treat, something the story identified as a tang hooler, half-a-dozen crab apples on a stick, all dipped in candy. Of the many things I saw in China last year, a vendor selling this simple child's treat was certainly not the most astonishing, but it hit me with a jolt of delighted recognition that "bigger" sights did not offer. Eating one was like finding that a decades-old promise had been kept.
Freshman year in high school, we were required to read Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. I was enraptured. By the end of the semester, I knew more about China than the teacher did. Unfortunately, the class had moved on to Western Europe, and I was flunking—but I was happy. During that period, I read two other Pearl Buck books, Imperial Woman and The Three Daughters of Madame Liang. Imperial Woman was about the fascinating, powerful dowager empress, Tsu Hsi (now spelled Ci Xi in Pinyin—that official form that changed Peking to Beijing). Three Daughters was about the fate of three women during the Communist takeover of China.
Last year, in China, though I delighted in seeing the Forbidden City, walking the halls and galleries of the empresses' glorious Summer Palace held even greater pleasure for me, many of the tales of Tsu Hsi's rule coming back to me as I explored. I also thought often of the sorrow and upheaval in Three Daughters, as I witnessed some of the effects of continued Communist rule, from huge pictures of Mao to truck loads of prisoners carrying signs listing their crimes to the shiny spots in Tiananmen Square, where the government replaced the stone to keep tourists from photographing bullet holes.
It seems that much of my life has built toward visiting China. My mother had often dined in Chicago's Chinatown with her own father, and introduced us early to Chinese food. (She used to say that she was the only person on the North Shore with a charge account at a Chinese carry-out shop.) I wasn't more than six when my dad told me (jokingly, I now know, but I believed it then with the deep certainty only children possess) that the universe would somehow falter if one ate Asian food with a fork, so I should learn to use chopsticks. I did. My dad loved Chinese art, too, and I remember going through books with him, and browsing through museums. I still have the Chinese doll I had as a child, the silk Chinese costume my dad bought me at the 1965 World's Fair, the antique Chinese snuff bottle I bought myself when I got my first job.
One might think that it would be hard for any country to live up to such memories—but China blew me away. I loved everything: the people, the antiquity, the irony, the bustling markets, the quiet countryside, the art and artisans, the museums, the farms, the palaces and temples, the street vendors, the straw hats and brooms, the fishermen with their nets, the rice paddies, the tranquillity, the energy. (Well, almost everything—I was reminded often enough that it was not a free country, and that I did not love.)
And the food was amazing. It changed as we (I was traveling with fellow Mensan, Stacey Kirsch) moved across the country, but was never less than brilliant and abundant, though the abundance often leaned heavily toward the vegetable side of the menu. (Some intriguing vegetables, too—snake beans, water spinach, winter melon—plus familiar veggies prepared in unfamiliar ways.) I had Chinese food three meals a day for 21 days, and came home wanting more.
We actually met people who said they hated Chinese food, who had brought peanut butter and crackers for the whole trip—which boggles my mind. But not everyone likes the same stuff. Sometimes, this worked to our advantage. I admit that I was among those who did not prefer some of the fishier fish set before us, so on a couple of occasions, Stacey got almost a whole fish to herself. My turn came when they served steamed eggs, which is basically a savory custard. I love custard in almost any form, sweet or savory, but was in the minority in our group. So the bowls of steamed eggs that appeared with increasing frequency as we headed west were pretty much mine.
There are too many cultures with custard dishes for me to believe that there are not legions of fans out there, even if they weren't with me on that trip—think of flan, crème caramel, and even quiche. So here is the recipe for this simple, nourishing, classic Chinese dish. Enjoy.
Chinese Steamed Eggs
3 scallions, minced
1 cup unsalted broth
2 tsp. sherry
1 tsp. light vegetable oil
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. sugar
Heat the broth, but do not boil it. Beat the eggs very lightly (but do not whisk; see tips). Mix in the sherry, oil, salt, sugar, and scallions. Slowly stir in the heated broth. Transfer the mixture to a shallow, heatproof dish. Steam over low heat (see tips) until eggs are custard-like (20 to 30 minutes—you can check with a toothpick or knife—it should be semi-solid). Sprinkle lightly with soy sauce and serve right in the steaming dish.
Don't use a whisk, which is designed to add air to beaten eggs. A key to making this correctly is to beat the eggs lightly enough. (It helps if eggs are at room temperature when you start.) The texture will only be smooth and custard-like if as little air as possible is added to the eggs. (My first attempt had too much air—it still tasted good, but wasn't perfectly silken.) Also, low heat is important; high heat makes the eggs separate.
If salted broth is used, eliminate the ½ tsp. salt. Also, any variety of broth will work. I use chicken, but vegetable broth, miso, or dashi could be used, as could seafood or meat broths.
Add one or more of the following: ¼ cup minced ham, 3 strips crumbled bacon, ½ cup flaked crab or fish, ½ cup finely chopped mushrooms, ½ cup finely chopped water chestnuts, or similar. Add at the same stage as the scallions.