For the story, I got to talk to some amazing chefs, among them Corey Lee of Benu in San Francisco, Dong Jinmu of Longjing Manor in Hangzhou, China, and Ronnie Ng of Koi Palace in Daly City. Each also had their own happy, early memories of eating preserved eggs.
For all of them, the memory of that first bite lingers vividly but is difficult to recapture in the kitchen. The flavors of these eggs are so tied to where they come from–from where the bird has foraged to where the curing ingredients are sourced. As Chef Ng put it, “If you don’t have the right soil, you don’t have an ingredient,” which is why he has never bothered to preserve eggs here in the States. (Many preserved eggs are cured with a mud paste, so this is literally true.) His tastes were shaped in Hong Kong, where farmers raised ducks and cured eggs on the decks of their sampans floating in the harbor. “You can make pi dan, but you can never make PI DAN,” Ng said.
Chef Corey Lee’s exquisite housemade quail pi dan (in the West known as century eggs) make his hands look huge.
As time and space available for small batch production has disappeared, so too have the flavors from our childhoods. Eggs made the old way are even increasingly rare even in the smallest markets in China and southeast Asia. In Hong Kong, the Michelin-starred restaurant Yung Kee makes its own tangxin-style pi dan, “sugar-centered eggs,” with yolks that ooze like honey. The restaurant runs its own duck farm and uses what they told me is a “secret type of mud.” Knowing what I know now about preserved eggs, I would bet they dug it up someplace near the chef’s childhood home.