I still remember my first liu sha bao (molten custard bun). I was celebrating a friend’s graduation from NUS at former Chinese restaurant The Cathay and our hearts did a little flip at the first sight of hot salted egg lava. Oozing a grainy hit of sweet and savoury, the bun was unanimously declared “a little piece of heaven”.
That was some years back. Now, salted egg has transcended its tze char (Chinese home-style cuisine) beginnings and gone from a sauce poured over crabs and prawns to an ingredient in croissant filling, a sauce slathered over chips, and even as a flavour infusion in cocktails.
It’s everywhere, and I have had enough.
Having been exposed to countless blog posts and pictures on my Instagram feed extolling the delight of finding yet another item smothered in that golden sauce, I have salted egg fatigue. And like any dominating species in an ecosystem, it suppresses the desire to experiment.
“Salted egg yolk is like ‘Asian salted caramel’. It goes well with quite a few things but I hope creativity won’t be stifled by people adding salted egg into everything,” says an orthodontist, who is also a judge for the annual G Restaurant Awards by The Peak Selections: Gourmet & Travel.
A good friend of mine, whom I trust for his seasoned palate, agrees: “It’s overdone and beginning to mess with classics. Some are just poor imitations catching the craze. Anything that’s fried, you can add salted egg sauce to and people will lap it up. It’s not a new, inventive way of cooking.”
It also raises the question: Is there real salted egg yolk in this sauce? The answer isn’t always yes. Steaming and mashing brined duck yolks to create a paste takes more than four hours, and many chefs are not willing to invest the time and effort.
The alternative is using powder, which contains little to none of the real deal. According to Unilever Food Solution’s website, a 6X800g pouch of golden salted egg powder lists chicken egg (not even duck’s), shortening powder, creamer and colourings as its main ingredients.
“The powder helps to save time, and it does give the custard a nice colour and a thicker consistency,” says Shawn Koh, chef-owner of Flavour Flings, one of the first cafes to launch salted egg lava croissants. Koh previously used a half-half ratio of powder to real yolks, but has since changed his recipe to using solely the latter when customers demanded for the grainy texture (achieved only by using actual eggs) that was lacking.
I can’t wait for more diners to show that same discernment and weed out the trend-followers and weaker offerings, if only because it will make space for more creativity in the culinary scene. Jonathan Shen, co-founder of heritage snacks company The Golden Duck, predicts that salted egg yolk trend will go the way of bubble tea: “It will average itself out over the course of the next year. When that happens, only the best players will be left.”
For the time being, I’m rooting for the recognition of another humble local ingredient. At fine-dining restaurant Whitegrass, Australian chef Sam Aisbett is turning century egg into a light jelly and using it in dishes like a roasted quail topped with shards of dehydrated milk. If century egg takes off in fine dining despite its icky colours and manufacturing method, well, you heard it here first.