For the past three Easters, we have switched up the traditional Easter egg fabrication process. From eggs dyed with red cabbage to beet pickled eggs, this year we settled on Rabbit Scotch eggs, but a discovery made while doing R&D for Easter was Cha Ye Dan, or Chinese tea eggs. These delicious snacks are boiled eggs that are then steeped in a brine of soy sauce, black tea, and spices. The egg shells are cracked with the back of a spoon and the dark brine colors the white egg in a spiderweb like pattern. Beautiful and delicious.
After making these eggs, the aroma coming from the brine was so different than anything that I had smelled before that I instantly tasted the mixture. It was sweet, salty, and powerfully spiced with star anise, cinnamon, and orange – a little too salty, though, for consumption in any sort of quantity. Before diving into the tea eggs research, my original impression was that there were hard boiled eggs that were simple smoked over tea leaves, but steeping them still produced a slightly smokey flavor. A combination of this idea and the desire to reuse the brine over and over again led to this extrapolation.
Having no idea how, or if, it would work, so I started with a small belly – less than a pound. I assembled the brine in the same way as I did for the eggs, but did not dilute it with water. Once the brine has cooled overnight in the fridge, i added a pinch of curing salt since the bacon was to be smoked. Finally, I bagged the brine with the belly and let is do its work for a week.
After a week, I rinsed the belly and dried it for 24 hours. The black tea and soy brine stained the belly in a really interesting and, in my opinion, beautiful way.
While the belly dried, I made the eggs in the same manner that I had before. The first time you make these, you may be too gentle with the shells. I implore you not to be. You want the brine to make it to eggs. This was my second time making them and I took no prisoners with the back of that spoon.
Another lesson learned in the Spring was to let the eggs steep for at least 24 hours. Some folks say a few hours would do, but I want these to be far more than hard boiled eggs, so I let them go for 36 hours. The resulting eggs were amazing. The star anise, Szechuan peppercorns, and orange peel pushed the black tea and soy brine to maximum depth.
Once the belly was dried and the eggs were brined and peeled, the next step was the one which I did not know where it would land. Clearly, smoking meat with tea was a “thing”. I had a version of tea-smoked duck at Lao Sze Chuan, here in Chicago, but I never bridged the gap to anything that I would do at home. I constructed a smoking set up based on a tea-smoked duck operation. I do not work in a professional kitchen, so smoking indoors would be highly frowned upon, so I fired up the grill and lined my cast iron skillet with foil.
The smoke is a result of the tea, but it is not that simple, apparently. In addition to the tea, the smoking mixture includes brown sugar, rice, and flour. Once the mixture began to emit smoke, I dropped the belly and a couple eggs, set in a steamer basket, in the pan and fixed a lid on it. After a few minutes on the fire, I set the pan on the sidewalk for a few hours. After popping the lid, the unique smell of burning sugar and tea leaves filled the yard. After clearing my eyes, the, now, bacon and eggs looked ready and smelled even better than they looked.
In lieu of simply frying the bacon and eating the eggs whole, I thought that ssam might be an interesting bite. Adding rice to the egg and bacon, then wrapping the whole thing in butter lettuce was the right way to go. It made sense. The flavors and textures were both new and familiar. The bite was right sized so that I did not feel like it was a heavy dish despite including a sizable chunk of crispy pork belly.
After finishing the ssam, I put the tea-smoked eggs and bacon up until the eggs began to call later that day. With a fresh bottle of sambal and ample supply of sriracha, a Memorial Day afternoon snack of deviled tea-smoked tea eggs on the patio was like the rest of the eggs and bacon, something familiar, but still so incredibly new.
Tea Smoked Tea Eggs and bacon brine based on this recipe. For 12 ounces of pork belly, I used an entire batch of brined undiluted and a pinch of curing salt to cure the bacon for 7 days.
To smoke the eggs and bacon, I combined 1/4 cup black tea leaves, 2 tablespoons brown sugar and uncooked rice, and 1 teaspoon flour and szechuan peppercorns in a foil lined cast iron skillet. Once the mixture begins to smoke, add bacon and eggs in a steamer basket, cover, and, after a few minutes, remove from heat and let cover over a few hours. Slice, fry and serve.