Tea eggs originated in China and have become a popular snack food in Chinese communities across Asia, often sold by street vendors and in night markets. They are especially popular in Taiwan, where they have become ubiquitous in local convenience stores (it’s estimated that over 40 million tea eggs are sold per year!).
They are a delicious, cheap, and healthy snack, and although it takes a bit of time, the recipe is actually very easy to make at home. It is basically hard-boiled eggs, steeped—in their shells—in a marinade of fragrant tea, soy sauce, and a variety of spices. The key step is that the egg shells are gently cracked before soaking in the marinade, so that the “tea-and-spice broth” can seep through. Thus, when the eggs are peeled, they are revealed to be covered in a beautiful marbling pattern and the eggs themselves are infused with the subtle flavour of the tea and spices.
Tea eggs play a key role in the plot of the latest Oxford Tearoom Mystery: WRONGFULLY INFUSED (Book 11) and here is the recipe that’s shared at the end of the book.
I’m also including some photos from my own attempts to make tea eggs at home (I ADORE tea eggs and any time I return to Taiwan for a visit, my first stop is always at a 7-11 so I can pick up some tea eggs! 😉) – these were taken several years ago when my Great Dane Honey was still alive. Honey was a gentle giant who always posed very patiently for photos!
** NOTE: You can sometimes find ready-made “tea egg spice sachets” for sale in Asian supermarkets, which make life a lot easier! I made mine using one of those, plus my own tea bags, as you can see in my photo below. However, if you can’t find the spice bags, this recipe will also help you make up your own.
- One dozen eggs (medium size is best)
- 2 tablespoons ‘regular’ soya sauce
- 2 tablespoons dark soya sauce (you can substitute regular soya sauce if you can’t find dark)
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons (or bags) of black tea leaves (ideally a roasted/fermented Chinese tea, such as oolong)
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 – 3 star anise pods (depending on size)
(these are not essential but will greatly enhance the depth of flavour if you can include them. Alternatively, you could use half a teaspoon of Chinese five spice powder—easily found in most supermarkets—as a replacement, although fresh spices tend to be better)
- 2 bay leaves
- 4 whole cloves (not ground cloves)
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns**
** Sichuan peppercorns produce a characteristic “numbing” sensation, which can be a bit of an acquired taste! You can substitute red or black whole peppercorns instead for a milder flavour.
Other optional spices you may like to try:
- 2-4 black cardamom pods (not green)
- 1-2 piecesdried orange peel
- Fresh ginger
- Place the eggs in a pot with enough water to cover them completely and bring to the boil. Lower the heat to medium so that the water is not bubbling too vigorously (this prevents the egg whites becoming hard and rubbery). Traditionally, tea eggs are hard-boiled (10 mins) but if you prefer your eggs with softer/runnier yolks, you can boil them for a shorter period (eg. 7 mins for medium, 5min for soft-boiled eggs)
- Take the eggs out and let them cool (you can use an ice bath)
- Pick up each egg and gently tap with the back of a spoon to crack the shell all over. Ideally, you want cracks evenly distributed over the surface. Don’t worry if bits of shell come off, leaving small gaps, but be careful not to crack so hard as to remove large sections.
- Put the cracked eggs in a small pot together with the tea leaves, soya sauce and spices. Add water until the eggs are completely covered.
- Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 20 mins.
- Turn off the heat and leave the eggs soaking in the “tea broth” marinade for another couple of hours at least before eating. Ideally, they should be soaked overnight as the longer they have in the marinade, the more flavour is imparted to the eggs. You can transfer the eggs & marinade to the fridge after cooling and let them soak overnight, then heat them up again to a gentle boil before serving the next day.
- Take the eggs out of the broth and peel to reveal the delicate, marble-like pattern on the surface. They can be served in a small bowl with a bit of the marinade, to further flavour the egg after peeling.
- Black tea leaves (ie. roasted/fermented) must be used. Green or white teas do not have enough fragrance or flavour. Oolong tea is a good choice, although any black tea should work. You can also use a mixture of Chinese tea leaves and “regular” black tea bags, for a more intense tea flavour.
- The eggs can be stored in the marinade, in the fridge, for 4 – 5 days. They will continue to soak up the broth and become saltier and more flavoursome over time.
- If you would like a saltier flavour, simply increase the amount of soya sauce used. However, remember that the eggs will become saltier the longer they soak in the marinade.
- Dark soya sauce has a deep caramel colour and richer, more subtle flavour than regular soya sauce. “Dark” does not mean it’s saltier—it refers to the colour, which is used to impart a rich, reddish-brown colour to many Chinese dishes.
- If you decide to add ginger to the marinade, make sure you use fresh ginger. Do not substitute dried ginger, stem ginger, or candied ginger.