We all love salted egg yolk... but what about the white? Does nobody care?

The humble salted egg, part yolk and part underappreciated white. – Pictures by CK Lim
The humble salted egg, part yolk and part underappreciated white. – Pictures by CK Lim

COMMENTARY, May 14 — When did salted egg yolk get into everything?

It seems like just yesterday when having a dish of sotong smothered with a thick gravy-batter of ham dan wong (salted egg yolk in Cantonese) was the very height of decadence.

Who knew dining out at your neighbourhood daichow could be such a luxurious experience?

These days the inexorable onslaught of salted egg yolk as the ingredient du jour means you can find it in just about anything you can imagine: cheap instant noodles and expensive ramen; on snacks such as popcorn, nori seaweed and crispy salmon skin; oozing out of croissants, a pastry that has been bastardised so many times the French are probably past caring at this point; and even as powdery sprinkles on top of soft serve ice cream!

Does anyone even remember the days when you’d only find these golden orbs in mooncakes and only once a year at that? (There’s also its affinity with porridge, specifically that of the Teochew variety, but more on that later.)

Leery as I am of food fads, even I couldn’t resist getting caught up in the salted egg yolk craze. I recall the moment I realised this with absolute clarity, the way one remembers a nightmare Stephen King would have been proud to pen.

I was cooking some instant noodles; I had caved into purchasing several packs of mi goreng segera — salted egg yolk flavour, of course.

Once plated, I couldn’t help noticing a half-opened pack of salted egg seaweed. It’d add some crunch, so why not? Then there was that bag of salted egg yolk salmon skin I had been saving for a Game of Thrones final season marathon. You guessed it: I used that too, less as a garnish and more of gilding the lily.

You know you’ve gone too far when every ingredient is laced with salted egg yolk...

Don’t get me wrong. Salted egg yolk is tasty, addictively so.

Yet with all this attention (some would argue hoopla, even) paid to the yolk, perhaps we too easily forget the white that envelops it.

A dish of 'sotong' (squid) smothered with 'ham dan wong' (salted egg yolk in Cantonese) (left). Salted egg yolk ice cream, anyone? (right)
A dish of 'sotong' (squid) smothered with 'ham dan wong' (salted egg yolk in Cantonese) (left). Salted egg yolk ice cream, anyone? (right)

If the exalted salted egg yolk, almost fiery red in its hue, is rich and buttery, then its other half is more subdued. Ash white in colour, between creamy and rubbery in texture, and almost too briny in flavour, the taste of salt mines and the sweat of those who labour there.

Subdued but far from subtle.

Is this why cooks and confectioners falter in their attempts to make the salted egg white as fashionable as the yolk? Is its savour too straightforward and indistinct?

Perhaps its paleness is a stumbling block on the path to viral fame. Say what you like about the salted egg yolk but its colour calls out to gluttons and gourmands alike; a marketer’s dream come true.

Perhaps, then, what the salted egg white needs is a really awesome public relations campaign. Something to espouse the joys of its delicate flavour or to champion its versatility beyond ubiquitous Teochew porridge topping.

Why not advocate its role as a meal replacement for athletes seeking both protein shakes and rehydration salts? Let’s boost its profile as a heritage food so indispensable to our Asian identity, now at risk of being forgotten for good.

Naming it an endangered ingredient sure has an element of urgency to it, no?

Look further, beyond the smoky back alleys of street food and elevate it as part of a Michelin-starred chef’s tasting menu. What a challenge, what fun!

Or perhaps it ought to go mass market the way the salted egg yolk has, most successfully. Salted egg white in boba tea? In gelato? As a potato chip flavour, for those bored of salt and vinegar?

Then again, maybe we are over-reaching here. Maybe the salted egg white is quite content to have its “sibling” hog the limelight.

You know you’ve gone too far when every ingredient is laced with salted egg yolk...
You know you’ve gone too far when every ingredient is laced with salted egg yolk...

Maybe where the salted egg white excels is in its modest application. Coating strands of yin choy (Chinese spinach) in superior stock in the form of silken ribbons, sprinkled over some instant noodles when you’ve no fresh eggs in the pantry, or eaten with plain Teochew porridge — what more could we ask for?

Let’s not forget the humble salted egg white but let’s also not fear its untimely demise. Unlike millennials (and honestly, non-millennials too) plagued by FOMO — fear of missing out — the salted egg white has plenty to teach us about being satisfied with who we are.

Not all of us have to be superstars to shine like a diamond in the sky.

If the Instagram-friendly salted egg yolk craves attention and must morph a hundred ways to sustain interest (ah, such are the pitfalls of celebrity!), the untroubled salted egg white prefers to sit at ease and in quiet. Fulfilled and in no hurry to chase passing trends or satisfy the expectations of others.

Don’t cry for the salted egg white. It’s perfectly happy just the way it is. We should all be so lucky.

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