Onigiri, Chinese salted eggs and salt

I have been making onigiri thanks to the excellent instructions by Just Hungry.

Maki discusses the possible fillings you can use in these Japanese rice balls on that page as well as here and a full primer on onigiri here.

I had a couple of ideas myself, the first of which is to use Chinese salted eggs. After all, they are always best eaten with plain white rice (the beautiful flavour of the yolks is wasted in mooncakes!).

Much as I adore salted egges, due to my many food sensitivities, I haven’t eaten them in a looong time (;_;). Commercial ones give me hives, possibly because of preservatives and colouring. Here are more reasons to make your own salted eggs.

For the sake of my onigiri, I decided to finally attempt to make my own salted eggs. My grandmother told me that she used to make them at home decades ago. I’m not sure if the preserving process will produce any substances that I’ll react to, but I guess we’ll soon find out in three weeks’ time when my haam daan 鹹蛋 are ready :).

There are plenty of recipes on the internet, but Lily has actually tried both methods and blogged about it here and here. The methods are also summarised on Wikipedia (I didn’t realise that so many cultures in Southeast Asia also have their own version of salted eggs!): a brine solution method, or a dry method.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find ducks eggs so have made do with regular chicken’s eggs, which don’t produce such a good result apparently. As I don’t want to use Chinese wine (I’m allergic to alcohol) to soak the eggs before coating in salt and I don’t know what substitute can be used, I chose the brine solution method.

I started out by using salt from a massive 1kg bag I bought super-cheap for 70cents at Sheng Siong. It was the commonly-found ‘pagoda’ brand, which we have used at home, but never before bought such a large bag of it. However, the brine solution immediately turned a dirty grey and there was plenty of scum when the water boiled. Seems like there are plenty of mineral impurities in this bag of salt? I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but it looked so unpleasant and suspicious that I threw the brine solution away and started again with a small bag of Cold Storage No Frills cooking salt we had lying around in the kitchen. It dissolved easily, the water was clear, no scum. Phew. And that’s what my eggs are soaking in now.

Moral of the story: ‘salt’ can refer to many different substances… what exactly are we eating? Harold McGee’s bible on ‘the science and lore of the kitchen’, On Food and Cooking (p.641), says that

Standard table salt is often supplemented with additives, as much as 2% of the total weight, that prevent the crystal surfaces from absorbing moisture and sticking to each other. These additives include aluminium and silicon compounds of sodium and calcium, silicon dioxide – the material of glass and ceramics – and magnesium carbonate. Other compounds may be added to keep these additives from excessive drying and caking. Most anticaking additives do not dissolve as readily as salt, and cloud the brines for pickled vegetables, so specialised pickling salts omit them. These additives may also contribute slight undesirable tastes of their own.

There’s your answer – make sure you get the right kind of salt for pickling (which is basically what making salted eggs is).

Also, impurities in salt in general aren’t always undesirable. Premium unrefined sea salt and Fleur de sel, which are known for their delicate and complex flavours, and dull grey colour in the case of some unrefined sea salt. These special qualities are actually due to ‘minor minerals, algae and a few salt-tolerant bacteria’ so unrefined sea salt therefore contains ‘traces of magnesium chloride and sulfate and calcium sulfate, as well as particles of clay and other sediments’ (McGee, On Food and Cooking, p.642).

[Interesting fact: apparently, China has become the world's largest producer of salt since 2006 (ref: The Salt Institute).]

Back to the salted eggs. Here are the quantities I used:
*6 chicken eggs [regular size in Singapore, small by British standards!]
*700ml water [I measured, this was the amount that covered the eggs nicely in the cointainer I was using]
*1/2 to 3/4 cup salt [1/2 cup was actually about all that could dissolve, but I added a bit more for good measure :)]

I put it all into a small Corningware mixing bowl, for which my Corningware serving dish lid fit nicely. One of the more difficult bits is how to weigh down the eggs to make sure they stay submerged. I used a ceramic teacup saucer which fit nicely inside the mixing bowl, and even that started to float, so I poured more water over it and the weight of the water held the saucer (and eggs) down. Some people suggest a giant Ziploc bag filled with water on top of the eggs (see comments here).

The kitchen is a very hot place because of all that cooking going on, so not suitable for leaving the eggs & brine to do their thing, as I read in various internet instructions. My grandmother also always used to insist on keeping her salted eggs in a cool place. This reminds me of what my Chinese tea instructor said about not keeping fine Chinese teas in the kitchen because the heat is not good for them. She said keep your teas in the living room, so I guess the same goes for the salting of eggs :).

19 more days to go before testing one egg to see if they are done…. I’ll have to try some other onigiri fillings in the meantime!


Day 20 update:
Tried one egg, the very centre of the yolk hadn’t become fully salted yet. Otherwise, they were passable salted eggs and obviously less saltish than commercial ones. I had never before noticed the distinct flavour of chicken eggs, but having been used salted ducks’ eggs all along, these were noticeably chicken! Will try another egg on Day 25.

Day 30 update: Finally decided the eggs were done and took the remaining eggs out of the brine solution.

Day 40 update: Cooked the last of the salted eggs. Found that one of them was incompletely preserved – the yolk had not changed. Wonder why?

14/4/08 Update: Further tips from me on making salted eggs here.

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4 Responses

  1. I’m from singapore, i try e dar method using cooking wine n chicken egg. About 22 day i cook N 28 day 1 cook another but not mature enough. left there till 1&1/2 month now bit too mature but it turn our with nice oily yolk. maybe e container i use e cause. i 1st use a triangler tupperware lated change to a smaller type. a batch of 29 egg. just to share

  2. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Alice. I hope my salted eggs turn out well too :).

  3. [...] with sea salt. Separated from rest of food with decorated plastic bento food divider. 2) 3 pieces onigiri made with Hokkaido-origin sushi rice (sorry, I forgot what strain) with nori & salt, no [...]

  4. [...] A two-tiered bento filled with leftovers from lunch: Bottom layer (pink): sushi rice topped with furikake Top layer (yellow): sitr-fried cauliflower+cabbage in pink silicone baking cup, stir-fried pork with leek & garlic, tempe, homemade salted egg. [...]

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