I understand what it’s like. It’s totally okay. Happens to everyone.
We venture into unfamiliar, “exotic” markets coming from strange corners of the world, seeing bewildering ingredients for the very first time of our small existence, feeling intrigued, curious, excited even, and then at the end of a good thorough lap we walk out of the markets with our sparkly eyes wide open and our shopping bags, utterly empty. Hey, I do it all the time, like last week in an Indonesian grocery store, and then again yesterday in this “sports goods” shop? It’s no fault of our own, actually if anything, only human nature, to take caution with unfamiliarities. It’s survival instinct 101. As far as I know, no one has ever died from tomato sauce in a jar or freezer-section pizzas, right? I guess I’m just trying to say, I can relate.
NESTED WITHIN, IS A JEWEL, DENSE AND COMPRESSED WITH THE ESSENCE OF ITSELF, HIDDEN TO BE EXCAVATED FROM THE BLACK SALTED EARTH
A RED DIAMOND
But growing up from two distinctively different backgrounds and cultures also means that, I too, relate to the other side, perhaps from your perspective, the scary side, the side that is teeming with strange and unfamiliar ingredients, flying pig-parts and deeply rouge sauces that hurt. Being a Taiwan-born, Canada-fed then New York-aged piece of mind, one foot half-in half-out on all sides for as long as 25 years, naturally, you know for my thighs’ sake, I want to find ways to close the distance between each, a distance that is all but illusions and narrower than anyone thinks. Because I’m also from the other side that knows stuff that you don’t. The other side that tries to shout “Hey there’s good stuffs here, really good stuffs, and you should try it!”, but often times in inaudible volume with a world that is too busy to investigate.
It’s not anyone’s fault. We didn’t shout loud enough.
A couple months ago, I picked up a signal that the world is ready to take eggs to another level, to cure egg yolks for its more intense and compact texture, but what most doesn’t know is, as convenient as the mediocrity of jarred tomato sauce or freezer-section pizzas, this level of sublimity, as in cured egg yolk, is also available and sold at your nearest Asian food-market, also known as, salted duck eggs.
You’ve probably seen it, then walked away, which is okay, because it doesn’t look all that. The duck egg is cured in whole, still inside its shell, in a mixture of salt and sand that slowly extracts its moisture, condensing flavors, in a span of two weeks or longer. They are sold either as raw, still encased inside the black, crumbly wet sand, or as cooked, usually vacuum-packed inside what looks like a normal eggs-carton. Either way, extremely easy to be overlooked, the cured eggs sit in front of your eyes as ordinary, if not unseemly, as anything can be, and you may have crossed its path for years without knowing the preciousness for your taking. Because it is, indeed, precious, because what nests within, is a jewel… dense and compressed with the essence of itself, hidden to be excavated from a layer of black salted earth.
A red diamond – the cured duck yolk.
One can describe that it still somewhat tastes like an egg yolk, but again, far from it, more like an upgraded reincarnation from another life. It is, I guess, yolk 2.0. Which in my opinion, is one of the most underrated Asian ingredient yet to be discovered, with so much to say that through its opaque and porcelain-like shell, it radiates a faint but glowing hue of deep burning orange, as if a secret beating flame, beautiful, mesmerizing… and you haven’t even gotten to tasting it yet. You should. Because it will change how you cook, with eggs at least.
This is the part where I say, even Asians, or us, sometimes don’t do cured duck yolks justice. There are, of course, already some ingenious applications, oh yeah, for sure, like placing it inside sweet pastries to give them that pop of salty and intensified core of flavors, or blending it with butter as a molten filling inside steamed buns, or crumbling it to be stir-fried with vegetables. But, there’s more to it than that. For the next couple of posts, I will be sharing my ideas on how to expand its horizon in your own kitchen, using cured duck yolks as an egg-booster if not the new MSG, as in every time when you think about an egg-dish, think how much more it can be with a shot of adrenaline, an egg-dish… like the classic Italian signature – carbonara.
Many would tell you that a dish like carbonara is as much about the pasta as it is about the quality of the eggs that, literally, is the sauce. They are mostly people from regions with exceptional eggs, the kind with orange yolks squeezed out from the asses of happily worm-fed, Tuscany-roaming hens who don’t have a boyfriend problem. We hate them. So what we don’t have the best, sexiest, Beyonce of eggs? We can still make an extraordinary, perhaps even more perfect, and all at the mean time, available and economically feasible carbonara, simply by blending the cured duck yolks into the custard. I’m not going to elaborate too much on the technique of making carbonara, which is everywhere on the internet and that’s not my point today. My point rests purely how this humble ingredient injects seasoning, depths, and an indescribably richness to the sauce that is as luxurious in texture as it is in flavors. The difference is subtle, but firm. Relax, it’s not going to taste like carbonara from Mars. Still on earth, just better. Richer, creamier, with more… compressed souls, it’s carbonara 2.0.
Really, for my thighs’ sake, you should try this.
- 2 cured duck eggs, raw
- 3 large fresh eggs
- 2 oz (55 grams) pecorino romano or parmigiano, cut in small cubes
- 1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 8.8 oz (250 grams) dried spaghetti
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 oz (30 grams) pancetta, cut into small cubes
- 2 loves garlics, minced
- 1 sprig fresh thyme
- 1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp unsalted butter
- plus more pecorino romano or parmigiana for grating
- TO MAKE CUSTARD: Wash the black sand off of the cured duck eggs under running water. Crack the eggs and remove the yolks (discard the egg whites). Place the cured duck yolks, large fresh eggs, cured duck yolks, pecorino romano (or Parmigiano) and freshly ground black pepper in a blender, and blend until smooth. Can be prepared a couple hours ahead of time.
- TO COOK: Bring a large pot of generously salted water to boil and cook the spaghetti until soft but still with a bite. Meanwhile, heat extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, and cook the diced pancetta until slightly browned, then add the garlics, thyme and freshly ground black pepper, and cook until just fragrant. TURN OFF THE HEAT while you wait for the pasta to cook. Once the pasta's ready, drain well and transfer into the skillet. Add the custard and unsalted butter, then return to medium-low heat. SWIRLING CONSTANTLY with a tongs, moving the skillet over and away from the flame for just enough heat, until the custard start to thicken into a creamy and mayo like consistency. DON'T RUSH IT. It's better to take longer for the custard to thicken than ending up with scrambled eggs.
- Re-season with sea salt if needed (I added about 1/4 tsp), and shower with tons more grated cheese before serving.
This recipe will require cured duck eggs that are still raw. You can tell the raw ones from the cooked ones easily from the way they look. The raw ones are still encased in a layer of black, salty sand (the curing agent), whereas the cooked ones are cleaned, steamed, then vacuum-packed. But if you can't find raw one, you can also use the cooked. (I haven't tried yet but theoretically) Scoop out the cooked yolks and blend it as instructed.
The star of the cured duck egg is obviously the yolk. The cured egg white is extremely salty with a rubbery texture. It can be eaten when it's steamed whole to go with congee, or crumbled to be used as salt in stir-fries, but in this case, we are not going to use it.