I’m at a back corner table of a restaurant located in the back corner of a sprawling strip mall. I’m staring down a delicacy that for years was part of a trio of foods I vowed I’d never try. I’m about twenty seconds away from excising said delicacy off that list for good. I’m also about thirty seconds away from realizing I’m an idiot.
The delicacy in question? A century egg, also known as a 100-year-old egg. The name itself is off-putting, but it has nothing on its appearance. Black on the outside, gray on the inside, the symbol of life made to resemble death. For years, this look was so strange and unpleasant, I had no qualms about treating it like the average five-year-old treats asparagus. I don’t have such feelings on this day.
This is not the first time the opportunity to eat a century egg presented itself. Three years ago, I shared my snap disdain for the egg to a colleague who had been eating them all her life. Apparently, this did not set well with her. The next time I saw her – at the local county fair, no less – she reached into her oversized purse, pulled out a century egg snugly tucked in a Ziploc bag, and implored me to give it a shot. Her gesture softened my heart, so I brought it home and stashed in the fridge, with every intention of accompanying it with tofu and soy sauce as per her suggestion. The intentions were never acted upon. If she’s reading this, it may be the first time she sees I inadvertently blew off her generosity. (Just in case: Sorry, friend. I didn’t mean to wimp out. It just happened.)
The century egg remained on my list of forbidden foodstuffs, but the fact I accepted my colleague’s Ziploc-wrapped gift in the shadow of carnival rides told me its days on the list were likely numbered. I wouldn’t go out of my way to seek it out, but if I was at a place that served it, and it looked like they knew what they were doing, I was going to give it a shot. It was just a matter of time.
Which brings us here, at a hole-in-the-wall joint called The Vox Kitchen. I’m about to have a lesson in the perils of ignorance.
A century egg is more than a Chinese delicacy. It’s a symbol of food science. It’s an egg traditionally preserved in a mineral mixture for several weeks to several months. This mix – which usually contains clay, salt, and wood ash, amongst other substances – boost the egg’s pH level over time, increasing its saltiness while decreasing its visual appeal.
At least, that’s the way they used to do it back in the days of the Ming dynasty. These days, the eggs are usually soaked in a saline solution to achieve the same effect. It’s also soaked in an unpleasant mythos. Because its name translates to “horse urine eggs” in Thai, it’s been rumored that equine piddle can be part of the process. Thankfully, this is not the case.
The pee myth doesn’t do the century egg any favors, of course. It’s still a hard sell. Its discoloration alone is enough to play tricks on a mind not calibrated to view it as normal. I’ve seen this in action on “The Amazing Race,” when the contestants had to eat a century egg as part of a challenge. All but one of them could barely choke it down. The episode aired while my colleague’s century egg sat cold and lonely in the back of my refrigerator. I don’t know if watching the retching contestants contributed to my willing reluctance. Perhaps it did. The power of suggestion can be a real bitch at times.
Before we go any further, now’s as good a time as ever to share the other two dishes on my culinary verboten list. The first is fugu fish, and the second is balut. They have two things in common with the century egg. First off, they both dishes originate from Asian countries – the former is from Japan, and the other is from the Philippines. They’re also both weird as hell.
Maybe weird is not the most sufficient descriptor for fugu. A better adjective would be fatal. Yep, this is the fish that, if not prepared in a precise manner, could release lethal toxins in your body. I cannot wrap my head around why this is served in the first place. But it is, typically as sashimi, and it has its share of notoriety. I’m sure there are some adrenaline junkies who may get their rocks off on eating a morsel of fish and not dying. I’m not one of these people. As a rule, I try very hard not to engage in activities where I may end up dead. Besides, I’ve heard it’s not even good – the court of public opinion seems to place its flavor between faint chicken and flat-out bland. That doesn’t seal the rejection deal since that’s already sealed, but it certainly pours another layer over everything. In summary: Fugu is a potentially lethal fish that with boring flavors. It gets the hardest of passes possible.
Balut on the other hand deserves the weird label, full stop. From a Westerner’s point of view, it probably earns labels like “gross,” “ewwwww,” and “why would you eat that?” These seem valid labels to me. Balut is a developing duck embryo that’s boiled within its egg casing and eaten from the shell. If you’re lucky, the inside of the egg will resemble a giant wad of snot. If you’re unlucky, you may find yourself plucking a feather from your teeth. I’ll never know where my fortune lands with the dish, and I’m more than okay with this. I always will be, too.
There is another side to this admission, of course. I’m open to eating stuff that others would consider extremely weird. I’ve eaten durian before, albeit in ice cream form during a pop-up restaurant event in Los Angeles. Still, I consider it an achievement unlocked (the verdict: meh). I’ve consumed cheek, eye, liver, kidney, heart, sweetbreads, and stomach. Brains remain a white whale, but that’s only a matter of time before its flavor is captured by my palate. I can tell you that balls are tasty, whether you decide to refer to them as lamb fries or Rocky Mountain oysters. If I ever get to Scotland, haggis will be my first meal. I’m even down with trying lutefisk, although I can’t really give you a rational explanation why.
All of this isn’t meant to be a list laden with braggadocio. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s meant to magnify the fact that me wimping out on my friend’s century egg is borderline disgraceful. Fugu fish and balut are sensible culinary passes since the former is potentially fatal and the latter is bizarre if not slightly malicious. A century egg, however, was long on my list because it had an icky color that I wasn’t used to. It’s a stupid reason, which is why it needed to change.
My wife and I had heard about The Vox Kitchen from a couple of trusted foodie friends. It’s a few blocks from our home, nestled in the deepest corner of a gigantic strip mall that’s unofficially the southernmost finger of Little Saigon – the shopping center’s Pizza Hut, Denny’s and the Salvation Army creates a triumvirate of Americana that prevents the center from adopting official standing. Vox’s milieu according to their website is “Asian comfort food.” Their online menu suggests rivulets of contradiction to this mission statement, in the form of elote (Mexican street corn) and lomo saltado (a classic Peruvian iteration of steak frites) This is no concern to us. We’ve heard the place is worth a visit, and that’s good enough for us.
I don’t notice the century egg on the online menu. Seeing lomo saltado on their online menu must have dominated my vision, especially since I walked into the joint and sat down at a back corner table with every intention of ordering that plate. I grab a real menu and start perusing the appetizers. I spot the egg – it’s served as part of a tofu dish – and look up. My wife is already looking at me. I assume she knows what I’m going to say next.
“They have the 100-year-old egg!” I say excitedly.
“Are you gonna get it?” My wife asks.
“Hell yes,” I reply, no sign of repulsion in my voice.
We order it without an askance view from our waiter – a refreshing break from what normally happens to us around these parts when we order an Asian dish traditionally skipped by Westerners. It arrives on a slightly retro blue and white dish, cut in two, flanked by bright discs of silken tofu and topped with green onion and a tousle of dried pork sung. The top of the sliced halves is edged black, the yolk a grayish-green hue. I cut off a sliver and examine the piece’s purplish, slightly translucent backside. Our waitress suggested to eat it with the rest of the dish’s components when she set the plate down – a quasi-echo of my friend’s original instruction – but her recommendation will have to wait until the second slice. I want the first bite by itself.
I feel the yolk smear across my palate while the black egg breaks apart with each chew. It’s not weird or off-putting. In fact, it’s delightful earthiness feels familiar. The umami gives way to a slight tinge of minerality which is left standing at the finish, and the coating still left on my tongue informs where the note emanates. It’s fascinating and fantastic. I eat my second bite as the waitress intended. The layers from the tofu, pork sung, sesame soy, and green onion wrap around the egg’s earthy funk, but they don’t engulf. I slowly eat the rest of the egg this way, but my speed isn’t driven by reluctance. I want to deliberately savor this sucker.
The century egg dish is a small plate, so I still order the lomo saltado. It’s properly Peruvian, which is to say it’s excellent – lomo saltado is in the pantheon of underrated culinary delights. Still, even as I’m enjoying this killer dish, I can’t stop mentally kicking myself for all those years wasted on ignoring the eggs based on what essentially comes down to its looks. It wasn’t a rookie mistake – it was a prepubescent one. I should have known better, because I do know better. My ignorance cost me something delicious. Thankfully, I’m enlightened now.
We’ve gone back to Vox since my initial encounter. However, I didn’t get the century egg the second time. I had my kids with me, and I didn’t want to freak them out by ordering something weird. After writing that last paragraph, I wonder if I did them a disservice. Perhaps I’m still an idiot after all.