Chinese do not have ovens, so the Chinese version of a soufflé is done on top of the stove in a heavy, covered pot. It is a dish with a country flavor and a rather dense, chewy consistency I find utterly delicious. “Old Egg” refers to the length of time the eggs take to puff up. It was a nickname given by Po-Fu, the head of our Chinese household, who liked to cook it on lazy, cold-weather nights. Ours was the only home in which I ever ate it, and the only recipe I have ever seen for anything like it comes from the book How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, by the delightful Buwei Yang Chao. My suspicion is that it is the invention of playful cooks, with no history behind it.
Just before cooking, beat together the eggs, stock, and chives or other seasoning. Add the soy slowly, tasting until you get the desired degree of saltiness.
Put a heavy, 2-quart pot over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add the oil, swirl to coat the bottom and sides fully (you may use an oil-soaked paper towel to complete the job), then reduce the heat to low. When the oil is hot enough to slowly bubble a drop of egg—about 30 seconds if you are using a properly heavy pot—swirl the pot, add the egg mixture, and cover the pot tightly.
Cook over low heat for 20–25 minutes, tightly covered. Only at the end of 20 minutes, peek quickly under the lid, lowering your eye to pot-level and raising the lid only the slightest bit lest the steam escape. To be fully cooked, the egg should be puffed to within ¾ inch of the top of the pot. If it is not fully puffed, shut the lid swiftly but gently and wait another 5 or 10 minutes.
When the egg is perfectly puffed, rush the pot to the table with the lid still in place. Call for the guests’ attention, raise the lid, then admire it immediately as it sometimes sinks on the spot.
Cut into wedges as you would a pie and keep the pot covered for second helpings. The dish may stay swollen to the last, in which case you have made a remarkable Old Egg.
Leftovers are charming only if you like cold egg.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.