A Recipe for Eggs
The joy of cooking Chinese eggs and tomatoes
Rob Palk is the author of Animal Lovers, a bitterly dark comedy about love, illness – and badgers. Here, he explores the joy of cooking and the recipe for perfect eggs
Caution: Contains egg
I am an unusually cack-handed man. Skills that sturdier, more luxuriantly bearded men take for granted – coopering, say, or hewing wood – are beyond me.
When men gather, to discuss these skills, stripped to the waist and ready to indulge in impromptu whittling contests, I am the myopic tubby hanger on, hoping someone will bring up contemporary fiction or the films of Agnes Varda. I can’t drive. I can’t do DIY. In a post-apocalypse of the sort our leaders are hastening on, I could just about survive by telling wry anecdotes around the fire, as long as someone else lit it. But I can cook. In fact, I love it.
A caveat here: when I say I can cook, I don’t suddenly become less visually impaired and more coordinated when dumped inside a kitchen. I can’t multitask, I don’t improvise. Despite the jazz accompanying my efforts, I stick to the guidance on the cookbook’s page like I’m in a classical orchestra. Put me in the company of the seriously accomplished and I’d be exposed fast. But remember, I can barely change a lightbulb without googling. To find daily joy in a manual task is no small thing.
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I didn’t adopt cooking so much as run, at far too late an age, out of people to cook for me. Up to my mid-twenties, I was mollycoddled to a degree I’m ashamed of, something I justified by it being the 00s, feminism having ended, alongside History, around 1989. Also, caring about food didn’t fit with being a lean, if cosetted, guy in the era now known as Indie Sleaze. Jeans weren’t designed for well-fed legs and cooking was something you did to heroin. Until, finding myself single, I saw it was time to learn. In the spirit of manly independence I would now embrace, I asked my mum for help.
She sent me a book. It was called The Dairy Home Cookbook. It was a creamy colour, a relic from behind the iron curtain of the 1970s. It was produced by the British Milk Board or the Ministry of Food or the Trade Unions. Either for thematic reasons, or because it was the Heath era and everyone was mad, most recipes were encumbered with artery-endangering levels of butter, cream, eggs and cheese. I think orange juice got a look in too. The mood was “dinner party in the Clockwork Orange universe” and made you wonder how the people of the 70s got so much adultery done, after feasting on, say, butter-roast duck with an accompaniment of crisps. I loved it and began a journey of scorched sausages, rubbery onions, pasta stuck to the bottom of pans, until, one day, I found I was enjoying myself. I also found the food was starting to taste good.
The Dairy Guide was jettisoned, replaced, at first, by a stack of BBC Good Foods and then, when I was feeling truly grown up, by Nigel Slater, Fuschia Dunlop, Elizabeth David, Anna Del Conte and Marcella Hazan. I tend to embrace a cookbook with the fervour of a puritan clutching their family Bible, before tiring and finding another. Part of the joy comes from the process of translation; of turning sparse instructions into something tangible, tasteable, the translation, too, of plants and flesh into food, of watching chicken turn from its Turkish Delight complexion into familiar meat, of inhaling the scents arising from a pan of vegetables. I begin to fancy myself. Glass of wine on the side, Miles farting from the stereo, risotto on the hob, and I decide I’m Stanley Tucci – a cosmopolitan urbane sensualist, forever ready to lift a spoon of delightful glop to the happy mouths of his guests. A man who knows about cheese. That I can do this while secretly satisfying my need to obey terse written instructions is a rare meeting of pleasures.
The theme for Season 02 of TOPIA, of course, is The Egg, so I’m going to give you one of the easiest and very best ways to eat them. In Beijing, when I visited a decade ago, there were still a few courtyard residences or old school communist blocks that hadn’t yet been razed by developers, and if you managed to encounter one of these, you would normally be in spitting distance of a tiny cafe, aimed at the proletariat, not over-concerned with notions of hygiene, and providing as good a demonstration of the sunny side of socialism as you’ll find. Chinese eggs and tomatoes have some adherents in the west, but the true hegemonic force of the dish is yet to be exploited. This meal could straddle the planet. It is, with no exaggeration, the best egg dish in the world. It is also simple.
You need a wok to start with, preferably a knackered filthy one, and far too much vegetable oil. You need to chop a few tomatoes into quarters, then halve those. Mix a couple of eggs into a slick yellow swirl then add a tiny amount of potato flour mixed in water until it slightly resembles sperm (this will probably mean a trip to your local Chinese supermarket but stop moaning, those places are great). This creates a gelatinous yellow slime, which you throw in your wok, with the aforementioned too much oil and the heat on high. Stir for a couple of minutes, remove, then throw the tomatoes in with a pinch of sugar. Once they’re spitting and crackling, toss the eggs back in, with salt, and stir till it makes a mess. Eat with rice. You’ll thank me.
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What’s so good about this?
Humble, diverse and delicious – the egg has been called the chameleon of the kitchen catwalk. Even the cack-handed man can impress, however the eggs are dressed.
Meet the writer
Rob Palk is a writer who can be found at @robpalkwriter. He has written for The Guardian, The Fence and The Happy Reader. His first novel Animal Lovers came out in 2018 and his second The Imposter is forthcoming.