Thursday, May 3, 2012

Boy Eggs

Now that I'm home again, there has been a decided shift in the questions people ask me about my project. I will probably have to set up a new FAQ page to accommodate this shift. In the meantime I can tell you that besides "how was the trip," which is open-ended enough to be nearly impossible for me to answer satisfactorily, one of the most common questions I get is "what was the weirdest thing you ate." Now I have already covered my thoughts about calling foods "weird" or "bizarre" in a previous post. In short, I don't like it--it's just too arbitrary and culture-centric. That being said, it's still easy to name the weirdest thing I ate in China. It's this:

That may look like an ordinary hard-boiled egg, and in many ways it is. There is just one key exception: this egg is cooked in the urine of young boys. Preferably under the age of ten (because urine from an eleven-year-old would just be gross). This delicacy is known by various names, the most descriptive of which is 童子尿煮鸡蛋 (tong zi sui zhu ji dan), or "boy urine cooked egg." This is often abbreviated to just 童子蛋 (tong zi dan), or "boy egg." Some of you may have already heard about these boy eggs because Reuters recently did a story about them that made the rounds on the Internet back in March and April. One thing that was missing from the Reuters story, though, was a personal taste test. That, of course, is where I come in.

Boy eggs are not easy to find in China. They are really only available in one city (Dongyang (东阳), in Zhejiang Province) and only in the springtime. I heard rumors from some seatmates on the train that boy eggs were also available in other southern Chinese cities, but I haven't found anything to substantiate this. Frankly, in my experience they weren't even easy to find in Dongyang itself, even though it's been officially listed as part of the city's "intangible cultural heritage." It took a good bit of asking around before I found a woman selling them from a wide, rusty pot.

I am nothing if not dedicated to my street food project, so I dutifully suppressed the part of my brain that was reminding me that these eggs had been cooked in urine and bought one for 1 yuan. After finding a suitable spot to sit and eat, I got down to business. On the outside, as you saw above, it looked just like a normal egg, albeit with a faint urine smell. Once shelled, however, it's a different story.

That marbleized look you see is the result of the cooking method--after boiling in the urine long enough to become solid, the eggshells are cracked a bit to allow the urine to soak into the egg itself during the remainder of the boiling. Those lines on the egg are where the cracks were in the shell. Actually, this shelled egg doesn't look terribly different from the tea eggs you can find all over China. The key difference there, of course, is that the tea eggs are cooked in tea instead of the urine of young boys. I can't emphasize that point enough--that this is an egg cooked in urine. Now, while the look of the boy egg is fairly similar to the tea egg, there are several important sensory differences. The most notable are the way it smells and feels. Have you ever changed the bed sheets for a child who wet the bed at night? If so, you may recall the way that the air is heavy with the odor of stale urine and that your fingers feel a bit slimy after touching the soiled linens. Throw in the smell of egg for good measure, and that's exactly what it is like to hold a boy egg, which, I remind you, is intended for human consumption. This slimy, rubbery ovoid that smells like stale urine and egg is meant to be eaten.

So, with the preliminary examination complete, it was time to eat the boy egg. Once again suppressing that part of my brain that was reminding me about the whole "cooked in urine" thing, I dove right in. The result? Surprisingly, it wasn't that bad. In fact, it didn't taste substantially different from other hard-boiled eggs I ate in China. That strong odor of urine didn't translate into a strong taste, oddly enough. That's not to say that it wasn't there--it was just very mild. Like most hard-boiled eggs in China, the white (if you could call it that) was salty (though perhaps the saltiness in the boy eggs came from a different source...) and rubbery(they tend to cook eggs longer in China than we do in the USA), while the yolk tasted like every other hard-boiled egg yolk I've ever eaten. The inside looked exactly like you'd imagine.

Two or three bites and it's gone. So that's that.

The foremost question in your minds, I suspect, is "why would anybody eat this?" The short answer is that it's tradition. Tradition is a powerful force in China, and in Dongyang these boy eggs traditional. The longer answer is that Chinese traditional medicine values the urine from virgin boys as a good preventative measure against joint pain and other ailments. Why it has to be boys and why they have to be virgins, I don't know. Many people in Dongyang eat these by the dozen in the springtime. That's not to say that everybody likes them, of course. Some Dongyangers find the whole idea repulsive. Also, it's worth noting that anytime I mentioned the boy eggs to a native Chinese person in any other part of China, they were pretty grossed out by the whole idea. So I caution you against thinking this is something everybody in China does. Just like eating dog or cat, it's true that some people do it, but it's not everywhere and it's considered gross by much of the population.

Another question you might be asking is "where do they get the urine?" Easy answer: local schools. As you can see from this great 2011 article from the Ministry of Tofu, vendors provide buckets to schools and encourage the boys to use those rather than the toilets.

I admit that after eating my boy egg, I couldn't help but look at every school-age boy I passed on the street and wonder whether or not he contributed to my lunch.

I also suspect many of you may be questioning how sanitary this endeavor is. Not very, to be honest. However, most doctors in Dongyang agree that these eggs won't hurt you (even if they don't believe in the therapeutic benefits). Depending how much faith you put in Chinese doctors, you can probably feel reasonably comfortable on the safety front.

So those are the boy eggs. I wouldn't label them a must-try street food in China. They are difficult to find (Dongyang isn't exactly on the tourist trail...there isn't even a train station) and aren't amazingly tasty or anything like that. They are however, extremely unique (remember: these are eggs cooked in urine), so if you're the type that likes to track down the most unusual foods you can, it might be time to plan a pilgrimage to Dongyang. For the rest of you, I suspect reading about it here was more than enough. I'm happy to oblige.


Mo said...

I can't help but feel partly responsible, though I'm sure you knew about them before I asked. I am delighted that you not only ate one, but that they topped the list! And that it was you who ate one and not me. :-P And you should know that this post is totally making my day.. not the least because of how many times you pointed out that they were cooked in urine. :-D

charliesaidthat said...

Fascinating. I ahve had several different Century egg dishes here in the UK, which I have to say are very Ammonia heavy.

I did not for one minute suspect there was such a thing as these boy eggs. I applaud you dedication to the cause sir.

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