How to Make Chinese Tea Eggs (Chayedan, 茶叶蛋)
Marbled Tea-Boiled Eggs
A skill I’ve gradually accepted as necessary in my life is learning how to make Chinese tea eggs. These fractured “tea leaf eggs”, 茶叶蛋 (cháyèdàn), continue brewing through an overnight marinade of black tea, aromatic spices and soy sauce that seeps into each crack, creating its beautiful stained glass veneer.
Soy saucey and tea-fragrant without being overpowering, chayedan previously came to me by the dozen (if not hundred). Out of stockpots, massive vats of never-ending tea egg, volunteer aunties might dole one out on our post-service Sunday plates. Or someone’s ma might magic the stockpot from the floor of their minivan onto the picnic table bench, in a park pavilion where the Chinese American community congregated for potlucks celebrating Mid-Autumn or Dragon Boat Festival or American Thanksgiving. Or they’d appear in a tin casserole tray, at someone’s house on a holiday break where guests’ shoes would spill across the entryway.
Wherever there were Chinese and Taiwanese families cooking for each other, you could count on there being tea eggs.
The problem is, once you moved outside that community, the abundance of instant-gratification tea eggs stopped too. It’s not that tea eggs are difficult to make, or require ingredients beyond a typical Chinese pantry. It’s just one of those small, simple pleasures that are too small not to make a big batch of… and require finishing said big batch yourself if you do make them with no one to share amongst.
Granted, I’ve since learned that one does not need to make five dozen tea eggs at a time. And in this economy? You might not even want to make a dozen. But eight, eight tea eggs will do. Eight tea eggs become a solo cook’s insurance policy against skipped breakfasts for up to a week (you always end up eating 1+ upfront to “check” if they’re ready); more likely, 3-5 days. Or, for a family, eight tea eggs last just long enough to be enjoyed—then missed, without accumulating and laying forgotten.
You can make as many or as few tea eggs as you wish, of course. Once you learn how to make Chinese tea eggs for yourself, the game is afoot. Bare-naked, over congee, in a noodle bowl, with rice, along hóngshāo pork, supplemented with chili oil and pickles: Consider tea eggs the versatile, souped-up hard-boiled egg. Literally.
Tips for how to make tea eggs
Raw eggs are vulnerable to cracking while boiling. You can temper this in many ways:
- Bring them to room temperature, so the thermal change from counter to boiling is not as extreme
- Use a wide, shallow pot, so eggs don’t jostle against each other
- Turn the heat low when adding eggs to the pot, limiting agitation
- Start the eggs in cold water, limiting thermal shock and agitation together
- Add salt to cold water starts, so undissolved salt grains buffer the physical space between shell and pot bottom
- Add vinegar and salt to cooking water regardless, so the proteins in egg whites coagulate immediately if cracks do occur
- Use low heat, limiting an agitating boil
- Leave the lid off, for better heat control
For ease of peeling, I ignore points 4-5. I prefer dropping eggs in boiling water. The same thermal shock that can crack your eggs also helps prevent the membrane from binding to the egg white as easily, making eggs dropped in boiling water easier to peel. If you have bad luck with your eggs cracking and wish to start cold, start a 4 minute timer once the water comes to a boil.
Some old pros even crack the round head of the raw egg before boiling, to help internal gas escape and give the cooked eggs a perfect shape. If you’re anxious about accidentally breaking the egg, you can use a needle to make a pinhole prick in the same area. Cooking for myself at home, I personally don’t bother with the extra step.
About the marinade
The marinade should taste like a savory tea-soy sauce-Chinese spice mix. You can pretty much use any variation of whole five-spice ingredients you wish. The only important rule: Don’t add too many. For the limited amount of marinade it takes to just cover the eggs (you don’t even have to fully cover them), too many spices will bring bitterness. A special touch to this spice mix is The Mala Market‘s new sand ginger, a species of galangal in the ginger family.
As for tea, Chinese hóngchá (black tea) is the traditional choice. What this really means for the diaspora is any old box of second-rate black tea lying around, no doubt teabags of cheap leaf bits (loose leaf if you were fancy). I vividly remember The Lipton Box at home, our perpetual tea egg tea (that is, the tea that was reserved for tea eggs). No need to use the fancy stuff here, especially when you’re cooking in big batches.
Darker coloring helps give the peeled egg its most dramatic look. To this end, we add rock sugar and just enough dark soy sauce, a coloring agent. Soaking time is even more important than cooking time, so let the long rest do its work and check back in a couple days to taste your work. I generally let the eggs soak for up to three days in the marinating liquid, then retrieve any remaining eggs and store them separately. There may not be any, if you’ve eaten them all by then. The leftover marinade can be saved and frozen for several re-uses down the line.
You can also reduce the marinade into a glaze/syrup, ideal for dressing the peeled eggs.
On soft-boiled tea eggs
This two-step recipe involves parboiling the eggs for 5 minutes, cracking the shell, and then simmering them in the marinade a further 15 minutes. While this may seem long for eggs, I have shortened the usual cooking time to cater to Western palates. Most Chinese people simmer at least 20-30 minutes in the marinade to intensify the flavor. So you can see the conundrum for how to make Chinese tea eggs that are soft-boiled.
If you ask me, a soft-boiled Chinese tea egg with only a subtle, fine-fractured marble pattern is nearly the same as a regular hard-boiled egg. The hot infusion of color during the second cook with the marinade is a crucial coloring and flavoring step. It ensures the soy marinade permeates deep through every crack and into the membrane. Even simmering for only 15 minutes total (5 pre-cracking, 10 in marinade) with a 48-hr marinade rest will not give the same results as simmering for 15-30 minutes in the final marinade step.
Here are two ways to remedy this:
1) Shell the whole egg and marinate completely naked, marble pattern be darned. This way, you don’t have to cook the egg further in hopes that the marinade can penetrate the membrane. You’ll see when you peel the eggs that the membrane prevents much of the color, and therefore flavor, from passing through. So just eliminate it!
2) Accept that a prettier, finely marbled soft-boiled egg will be much less flavorful. Commit to creating large, deep fractures through the shell, to give it a better chance of soaking in the soy marinade. If desired, reduce the leftover marinade into a glaze as suggested above, and serve soft-boiled tea eggs with the syrupy coating for more flavor and an even better look.
This recipe is easily doubled, tripled and otherwise multiplied. For more potluck friendly dishes from my family, try Ma’s Sichuan Liangmian for the ultimate end-game chili oil noodles or Zuzu’s Savory Sichuan Zongzi (粽子) for a leaf-wrapped sticky rice challenge!
How to Make Chinese Tea Eggs (Chayedan, 茶叶蛋)
- 8 medium eggs, washed and rinsed, room temperature *or one layer's worth, depending on size of pot
- ½ teaspoon table salt
- 2 servings black (Chinese red) tea approx. 2 teabags/2 teaspoons loose tea
- 10 whole red huajiao (Sichuan pepper)
- 1 slice dried sand ginger
- 1 dried red chili, chopped, deseeded
- 1 star anise
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ stick guipi (cassia bark)
- 4-5 lumps rock sugar or ½ tablespoon dark brown sugar
- 2 tablespoon light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
- ½ tablespoon dark soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
- 1½ tablespoons Shaoxing wine or other liaojiu (rice cooking wine) or baijiu
- ¾ teaspoon fine sea salt, to taste depends on amount of water added, adjust as needed
- scant ⅛ teaspoon ground white pepper
- 4-5 pieces fresh ginger, peeled, thinly sliced
- Select a pot that will hold as many eggs as you wish to cook in one roomy layer. Bring enough water to boil with ½ teaspoon of table salt, however much is sufficient to cover the layer of eggs in your pot. The salt will help plug any cracks if a shell breaks by coagulating the egg whites. Once boiling, turn the heat low and gently add the room temperature eggs. Cold eggs are more likely to crack. Simmer gently, uncovered, about 5 minutes (until the egg whites are set). Meanwhile, prepare a bowl of cold tap water. Sink the cooked eggs into the cold water (after transferring the eggs, take note of where the water level is in the pot for later). Empty the pot. Set aside while you prepare the marinade.
- Combine the red huajiao, chopped dried chili, dried sand ginger, star anise, bay leaf and cassia bark in a small bowl. Soak in just enough water to cover. Scrub lightly to clean any debris and set aside.In a second bowl, combine the rock sugar, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, rice cooking wine, sea salt and ground white pepper.
- Tap the cooled eggs lightly all over with the back of a spoon or wooden handle to gently shatter the shells. You want to break the outer hard shell while keeping the inner membrane intact. Less is more!
- In the empty pot, bring enough water to roughly cover the eggs to a boil (where the level of the water was after transferring the eggs previously).Return cracked eggs to hot water. Drain the soaked spices and add them to the pot, along with sauce mixture and tea. Stir and test the saltiness (it should taste salty). Simmer, covered, over low-medium heat for 15 minutes. The longer you cook the eggs, the deeper the colors and flavor will be. Many people simmer up to 30 minutes for the best flavor.
- Turn off the heat and let cool to room temperature, lid on. The flavor infuses better when warm, do not chill immediately. Strain the liquid to remove spices. Transfer eggs with the strained marinating liquid into a covered bowl (or keep them in the pot) to soak overnight in the fridge, minimum 24 hours, before enjoying. Eggs will keep up to 5-7 days. Serve cool, or microwave or steam to serve warm, with the original braising liquid spooned over it. You can also reduce some of the liquid into a syrupy consistency for more flavor.Soaked eggs can be stored in the marinating liquid for 2-3 days. I like to store the liquid separately after 2-3 days. The strained braising liquid can be frozen and reused several times.