Author Martin Booth remembers the 1950s Hong Kong of his childhood.
I was fascinated by the egg shops too, where fresh duck and chicken eggs were on offer alongside dried egg yolks and 100- (or1000-) year-old eggs. These preserved duck eggs were prepared by soaking them in strong tea then rolling them in a coating of wood ash, salt and lime. They were then stored in a huge earthenware jar and surrounded by fine soil rich in humus. In this state, they were left for just over three months during which time the yolk hardened and turned grey-green, the white of the egg turning into a semi-transparent black jelly that looked like onyx. Another preserved egg was made by coating it with red earth and ash, salt and lime bound together with tea and rolled in rice husks. They were then stored in an airtight jar sealed with candle or beeswax. When consumed, they were not cooked and were usually taken raw as an hors-d'oeuvre.
Several streets were lined by food stalls known as dai pai dongs from which exotic and enticing aromas wafted. One evening, much to the consternation of the stallholder-cum-chef who was cooking over a charcoal brazier, I hoisted myself on to a stool, passing cars inches from my back and, ordering by pointing, asked for one of the preserved eggs. It was served sliced on a plate with a small bowl of pickled sweet vegetables and a dipping bowl of Chinese vinegar, rice wine, soy sauce and thinly sliced ginger. I picked up the chopsticks. A crowd gathered. The spectacle of a blond European boy sitting at a dai pai dong alone of an evening was more than most could resist. The traffic slowed. Then stopped. A jam began to form.
Tentatively, not because I was suspicious of the egg but because I was aware that I was the centre of attention and not yet fully proficient at using chopsticks, I picked up a piece of yolk, dipped it in the sauce and ate it, following it down with a nibble of ginger. The taste was unique, savoury and rich and not at all egg-like. I ate a piece of picked cabbage. The stallholder put a bowl of steaming green tea before me. I held it up as if giving a toast. The crowd applauded, laughed and gradually dispersed, not a few of them touching my head in passing. I then tackled the problem of eating egg jelly with chopsticks. When I was done, the stallholder refused payment. I tried to press him. He refused again. I then saw why. I had brought him good luck. He had not a vacant stool.
Excerpt from "Golden Boy" by Martin Booth. Copyright © 2006. Reprinted with permission by Picador. Buy the book from amazon.com.