As a child growing up on ballet and opera in America, intermission was synonymous with a carton of sticky orange drink. Later, as a young adult addicted to Peking opera in Taipei, intermission meant a chance to rush outside for a tea egg, snatched steaming from the portable kitchen of an itinerant vendor—a pail of richly scented, tea-brewed eggs set over a second pail of glowing coals, which at the opera’s end was dismantled and carried to another busy corner.
Begin 12 hours to 1½ full days in advance of serving. Put the eggs and 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt in a large, heavy saucepan. Cover with a generous amount of cold water, then bring to a near-boil over moderate heat. Reduce the heat to maintain a steady simmer, then cook uncovered for 20 minutes. Drain, then rush the eggs under cold water and let them sit in a cold bath until cool.
Using the back of a large, heavy spoon, tap a network of fine cracks over the surface of each egg, cradling the egg in your palm and turning it gently as you tap. Don’t smash them; just a tinker’s tap-tap will do. Should an egg lose half or all of its shell, don’t worry. One partially or wholly dark egg on a platter of marbelized eggs will look quite beautiful.
Return the eggs carefully to a heavy pot that will hold them snugly. Add the steeping ingredients and 3 cups cold water. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, stir near the top of the liquid to submerge the tea leaves, then reduce the heat to maintain a steaming, weak simmer. Cover the pot tightly and simmer 3 hours. Check periodically to see that the eggs remain almost covered and add water if needed. Do not add too much, lest you dilute the infusion. Swirl the pot several times while cooking to distribute the liquids over the eggs.
After 3 hours, turn off the heat. Let the eggs steep in the covered pot at room temperature for at least 8 hours, or for as long as 1½ days. The longer they sit, the richer the flavor and darker the color. The eggs may be eaten tepid, at room temperature, or chilled.
To chill before serving, discard the liquids (they cannot be reused), then refrigerate the unpeeled eggs in a shallow dish. Arrange them in a single layer if they are still tepid to prevent them from being squashed out of shape, then cover airtight with plastic wrap.
Just before serving, peel the eggs carefully, removing the shell and any membrane left clinging to the egg. Cut in half or into quarters if you wish, using a sharp knife and wiping it frequently to keep the eggs clean. Arrange the cut eggs in a pretty spiral pattern on a round platter, yolk side down, quarters joined to look like halves, and alternating darker and lighter eggs for the prettiest effect. Or, if the eggs are small or you wish to serve them whole, pile them prettily in a contrasting bowl, where they will look like a heap of elegant marble paperweights.
Store unpeeled eggs in their shells, refrigerated and tightly sealed. Store leftover peeled eggs in the refrigerator, sealed airtight. Tea eggs will keep 4—5 days.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.