Marbled Tea Eggs and the Significance of Tea in Chinese Cuisine

by Shirl

These days, if you pay attention to politics in the US, you do hear a lot about the Tea Party, which certainly has been enjoying some resurgent popularity. But for someone like me, the words Tea Party are much more enticing when it’s really about tea and food. I can also tell you that my ultimate tea party menu won’t contain crust-less sandwiches or scones.

I have no idea if more people who drink tea or coffee in this world. I am a steadfast tea-drinker myself; my days almost always begin with a cup of English Breakfast or Earl Grey. And I know I’m not alone. It seems people from various corners of this planet do enjoy tea of one kind or another, from mint tea to matcha, yerba-maté to masala chai. The tradition of tea drinking is present in many cultures and easily dates back from centuries ago.

By no means am I knowledgeable in the global tea culture. Though I am aware Chinese have a long custom in tea-drinking. Back in the eighth century during the Tang Dynasty, Chinese writer, Lu Yu, documented in “The Classic of Tea” not only the origin and history of tea culture but also the proper ways to produce and brew tea. Centuries later, tea is still widely popular among Chinese.

Yum Cha, a phrase in Cantonese that literally translates to “to drink tea”, connotes dining on Dim Sum in contemporary language. (Dim Sum actually means the variety of small specialty dishes that are served along with tea.) The idea of Yum Cha is believed to have evolved from the age-old teahouse tradition of serving tea to travelers on the road. However, food is now at least as important as the tea served at Yum Cha. Just as there are dozens of Dim Sum dishes (such as steamed dumplings and buns made with all kinds of fillings, small plates of meat dishes, fried dumplings, spring rolls, rice-flour-based cakes and rolls made with meat or vegetables, and sweet pastries and so on) to choose from, there are plenty of options of tea available at Yum Cha, with Pu-erh (tea cakes of fermented black tea leaves) being the classic offering. Many tend to favor floral-scented tea infused with jasmine or chrysanthemum. Oolong, green tea is also popular. According to my mom, my dad’s favorite had been Shou Mei, also quite popular at Yum Cha, which I’ve found out is actually a white tea.

As I thought about tea leaves more, my mind slowly steered me back to my childhood, not so much about my memories of Yum Cha as those tea-infused eggs that I snacked on. The eggs were hard-boiled and steeped in a tea concoction, then yielded not only a savory flavor but a gorgeous marbled-pattern all over. Growing up, I had enjoyed quite a few of those at a buddy’s tea party or two. My mom would also make them for outings like a day at the beach. They are really simple to make, but they need time to sit, for at a least a day, two would be better, to reach their potential in flavor and appearance. In my experience, they are best served chilled.

tea eggs
Besides using tea to infuse flavor in cooking, Chinese cuisine has also employed tea leaves as a smoking agent to impart the scent of tea in its cooking. Zhang Cha Duck (Tea-Smoked Duck), a Sichuan specialty, is one prominent example and a dish not to be missed. A whole duck is first marinated overnight with aromatics including Sichuan pepper and ginger. Then it is blanched quickly in boiling water to tighten the skin. The duck is then air-dried thoroughly before being smoked for 15-20 minutes with black tea leaves, white rice and sugar. Placed in a steamer the duck is cooked until slightly under-done. The final step is to deep-fry the duck in peanut oil to achieve, yes, that crispy skin, which would complement nicely the succulent tea-scented meat. Now wouldn’t that be an ultimate tea-party dish!

While we are on the subject of Chinese cuisine, check out Lion's Head Meatballs.  For some popular Asian flavors, try Coconut Curry Chicken, and Chicken Mushroom Rice.

Marbled Tea Eggs Recipe

4 Eggs
1 Tablespoon of Black Tea Leaves or 2 Black Tea teabags
1 Tablespoon of Soy Sauce
1.5 Cups of Water
½ Teaspoon of Sugar
1 whole Star Anise

1. To make hard-boiled eggs, place eggs in a pot of cold water and boil on the stove. When water boils, turn off the heat; cover and let sit for 10 minutes. Then take eggs out and cool them in ice water.

2. When the eggs are cool enough to handle, remove them from ice bath. Use the back of a small teaspoon and gently tap each egg to create small cracks all over the shell. Take care to keep the eggshells intact and not break them.

3. Combine and heat gently water, tea leaves, soy sauce, sugar and star anise in a saucepan. Stir well to ensure sugar has melted. Add the eggs and let steep in a low simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Carefully transfer the eggs and liquid to a container and refrigerate for at least overnight up to 48 hours.

4. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

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From our partner: LO+JUNE
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