A new generation of Southeast Asian cooks and foodies has gone crazy with salted eggs. About time, I think. Long before salted eggs became a food fad, I had been experimenting by including them in savory dishes. But there are food purveyors today who have successfully integrated salted eggs in sweets and desserts.
Amazing, isn’t it, how the lowly salted egg, once relegated among the common and unexciting, has become a prized ingredient for over-prized dishes. But what are salted eggs, exactly?
Making salted eggs came from the Chinese and they’ve been making them since the sixth century. If you’re familiar with the history of Southeast Asia and the Philippines, you might have come across something about the locals trading with the Chinese long before the European colonizers came.
In the Philippines, making and eating salted eggs predates the arrival of the Spaniards. Traditionally, mallard duck eggs, the same kind used for making balut and penoy, are used for making itlog na maalat or salted eggs. I don’t know if that still holds true today or whether large chicken eggs are substituted for the duck eggs which are considerably more rare and expensive than chicken eggs.
Salted eggs are sold cooked — hard-boiled to be more precise. The red color of the shells isn’t natural, of course. The shells are dyed to distinguish them from fresh eggs. In wet markets, salted eggs are sold side by side with fresh eggs and imagine if the vendor gets a little confused and gives you salted eggs when, in fact, you intended to buy fresh ones.
In Pateros, however, where making salted eggs along with balut and penoy is a town industry, you can buy them before the shells are dyed. My father liked to do that but it got confusing in the kitchen. One time when he was cooking breakfast, he picked up an egg from the fridge thinking it was one of the fresh ones, cracked it open above the frying fan and was surprised when nothing dripped. Well, nothing would — he had taken a salted egg instead of a fresh one.
Salted eggs are often cut into small cubes and mixed with diced tomatoes to make a salad that is the traditional accompaniment for tinapa or any fried or grilled fish. You don’t have to limit the salad to salted eggs and tomatoes, however. You can be a little more creative by adding fresh herbs and some subtle seasonings.
Meanwhile, sliced itlog na maalat is a great topping for home made puto (steamed cakes).
Obviously, salted eggs are an important part of the Filipino diet. And it is because of that importance that salted eggs are sold everywhere — from neighborhood sari-sari (variety) stores to the poshest groceries and supermarkets. In short, because salted eggs are ubiquitous, there was never any reason for me to learn how to make them. But if you’re a Filipino living abroad and salted eggs are not easily obtainable in your area, making them at home seems to be easy enough.