Salted Egg Yolk Is the Umami Ingredient You Need

How a humble pantry staple opens the door to culinary exploration.

“Does anyone know of a shop in the GTA that sells salted duck egg chips? These are made in Singapore and flying off shelves in Asia. Happy to pay a small ransom for another bag,” said a Redditor on the subreddit askTO, where people discuss all things related to Toronto.

Without looking at the photo in the post, I knew user u/nerdwithoutglasses was referring to Irvins, a snack brand whose sole focus is on salted egg flavor. Of all the foods that ride on the salted egg trend in Singapore, Irvins chips and crispy fish skins seem to be the most successful. In February, the company launched its products in Canada through bubble tea chain Chatime’s stores across Ontario and British Columbia. I’m glad u/nerdwithoutglasses won’t have to pay a ransom for their craving anymore.

Irvins salted egg potato chips. Photo: SummerKhaw / Shutterstock.com

Toronto doesn’t have a craze for the salted egg flavor like Singapore, but with the large Asian population, it’s not hard to find this ingredient manifest in different forms. The egg yolk represents the moon in mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival and the lava element in lava buns, a staple in dim sum restaurants. You can taste it in the creamy custard filling of croissants and see its golden specks adorning a scoop of ice cream. Those who are of Vietnamese heritage scout on Facebook for vendors that sell salted egg sponge cake, a special treat that touts the boundaries of sweet and savory.

Salting duck eggs is an ancient Chinese preservation technique dating from the fifth century, according to the Singapore Michelin Guide. Traditionally, the eggs are covered in a soil paste mixed with salt and set aside for up to a month. Nowadays, they are submerged in a saline solution, a faster and more convenient method for larger commercial production. Unlike a cooked regular egg, the salted egg white is mealy, while its yolk is grainy and has a deep orange color. It is, of course, salty. Because of their more porous shell and richer yolk, duck eggs are used more widely.

Trevor Lui is a cookbook author, restaurateur and chef based in Toronto. Credit: Suech and Beck/Photo courtesy of Trevor Lui.
Trevor Lui is a cookbook author, restaurateur and chef based in Toronto. Credit: Suech and Beck/Photo courtesy of Trevor Lui.

“Throughout the process, the moisture inside the egg is drawn out and the salt diffuses through its shells,” said Anh Linh Nguyen, an application manager and senior scientist at food ingredients and biochemicals company Corbion’s Singaporean division. “That’s why its taste and richness are intensified.”

In their simplest form, salted duck eggs are used as a condiment for congee, a typical breakfast with countless variations across Asia. In cookbook author, chef, and restaurateur Trevor Lui’s household, they are cooked with rice and lapcheong, a type of Chinese preserved meat, lending an umami kick to the dish. Lui’s latest kitchen concepts are Makan Noodle Bar and Joybird Fried Kitchen.

Mash the yolk into a mixture of oil, stock, sugar, curry leaves and you’ll have an aromatic sauce that transforms crabs, prawns and pork ribs. These are classic offerings at a zi-char, a uniquely Singaporean term for restaurants serving family-style dishes for sharing. Vietnamese street vendors toss the yolk into fried corn and meatballs and blend it into cake batters. In the Philippines, salted egg chunks and tomato wedges make a hearty salad.

How did a common pantry staple go from mooncakes to potato chips, ice cream and other Western creations?

For one, it has a highly prized flavor profile. On its own, a salted duck egg is briny and has an earthy smell that could be off-putting to some, but with the right pairing, everything changes. “I would put it in the umami category,” Lui said. “It just lifts up a dish.”

While some liken the taste of salted egg to Parmesan, Lui thinks it’s closer to caviar. Despite their different price point and texture, both have a complex salty note, which enhances the dish they accompany. He loves caviar on a blini or scrambled egg, as much as salted egg in congee or rice.

From a scientist’s point of view, Nguyen thinks humans are hardwired to crave richness, saltiness and sweetness, as our ancient ancestors sought out foods with these tastes in their hunting-gathering days. “Dishes with salted egg yolk tick all the boxes,” he added.

That explains why people are drawn to desserts with salted caramel or peanuts. “Those are really appealing combinations,” said Ed Wong, owner of Wong’s Ice Cream in Toronto. The black sesame salted duck egg ice cream, one of his bestsellers, is an homage to mooncakes.

Black sesame and salted duck egg ice cream at Wong’s Ice Cream. Photo courtesy of Ed Wong.
Black sesame and salted duck egg ice cream at Wong’s Ice Cream. Photo courtesy of Ed Wong.

Wong’s Asian regulars who have grown up eating salted eggs in savory dishes find his rendition fascinating. They are curious and intrigued by something old and historical reinterpreted in a modern way. His non-Asian customers, on the other hand, remain cautious. Once they overcome the initial skepticism, the feeling is delightful. “When they try it, you can see the look on their face that says, ‘Oh my god, this is actually really good,’” Wong recalled.

Likewise, many customers of Toronto-based Là Lá Vietnamese Bakeshop, find its salted egg custard roll “weird” at first. “Is it savory? Is it sweet? Why is there pork floss in there?” recalled owner Harry Pham, adding, “Surprisingly, after the first try, they order the cake again.” Pham put his own spin on this Vietnamese treat by turning the yolk into crumbs and infusing it in the finishing glaze.

Là Lá Vietnamese Bakeshop’s salted egg custard rolls. Photo courtesy of Là Lá Vietnamese Bakeshop.
Là Lá Vietnamese Bakeshop’s salted egg custard rolls. Photo courtesy of Là Lá Vietnamese Bakeshop. 

Both Pham and Lui think the crossover to Western cuisine styles is a safe way to introduce a new ingredient to those unfamiliar with it. It creates awareness to the product without people actually seeing what it looks like. “We westernized certain things, so it’s easier on the palate and then eventually the palate grows and matures,” Lui explained.

On the other side of the equation, large international chains attempting to woo consumers in an Asian market have to localize their offerings, too. When Tim Hortons opened its first store in Shanghai, salted egg timbits and black lemon peach oolong tea were on the menu. In Singapore and Malaysia, McDonald’s blended salted egg yolk into a creamy sauce for its loaded fries and nuggets. Closer to home, how many times do we visit an H-Mart or a T&T to find ourselves lost in the snack aisle, where Lay’s chip flavors range from cucumber and bubble tea to hot and numbing Sichuan peppercorn?

Whether through a YouTube vlog watching someone trying McDonald’s in Singapore or a bag of salted egg chips, consumers now have a glimpse into the vast global pantry and a gateway to culinary exploration. To Lui, this is important. He hopes it will lead to a better understanding of a culture and its history.

Tofu, fish sauce and miso were once considered esoteric but have become more prevalent in many non-Asian households. It’s probably still a long way away before a pack of salted duck eggs is available in every Canadian grocery store, but the future is promising. After croissants, ice cream and potato chips, we know the possibilities are endless. Maybe someday, you’ll find salted egg crumbs as you nibble on a drumstick at Lui’s Joybird Fried Chicken. Wong has already made himself Chinese poutine with salted egg sauce, char siu and scallion.

“It’s amazing. I hope someone else will make it, so I don’t have to,” Wong told me. “I just want to buy it.”

Joybird Makan Noodle Bar. Address: Stackt Market, 28 Bathurst St
Wong’s Ice Cream. Address: 617 Gerrard Street East
Là Lá Vietnamese Bakeshop. Order online at: facebook.com/lalavietnamesebakeshop

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