by Clare Thng
Suspect: Salted egg custard.
Aliases: Liu Sha 流沙, Nai Huang 奶黄
Wanted for: Dim sum, fried chicken, molten lava cakes… essentially anything Singaporeans can get their hands on.
Physical appearance: Liquid gold.
Taste profile: Sweet and creamy with a savoury undertone.
Ingredients: Mainly butter, evaporated milk and salted duck egg yolk. Some recipes may include custard powder.
Last seen: Oozing from an Antoinette croissant, the latest craze it seems.
The use of salted eggs has traversed styles, cuisines and even eras, from its use as a simple congee condiment to its incorporation into elegant French macarons. One can trace its origins back to 6th century China when salted eggs were mentioned in Qimin Yaoshu (essential techniques for the peasantry), an ancient Chinese agricultural text. Originally, salted eggs were prepared by wrapping fresh duck eggs with a mixture of salt, charcoal or clay. Now, the most common method entails soaking the eggs in a salt brine for four to five weeks. Once the salting process is complete, the yolk hardens into a deep orange colour.
But who knew that the salted egg, then branded as a peasant’s dish, would fall into the hands of culinary auteurs? Over the years, chefs and bakers have embraced the preserved ingredient with enthusiasm, adding its remarkable Midas touch to their dishes. Today, salted eggs have amassed a huge network of loyal followers especially for its “sunshine-esque” custard, liu sha.
What is liu sha?
Essentially, liu sha is a custard made from mainly salted duck egg yolks, butter and milk. For a general preparation of salted egg custard, we spoke to food writer David Yip of Gastronaut Diary.
SALTED EGG CUSTARD RECIPE
Ingredients: Salted egg yolk 3 (approximately 50g)
Milk powder 2 tbsp (approximately 20g)
Custard powder 2 tbsp (approximately 20g)
- Steam salted egg yolk for 10 minutes. Mash it with a fork and set aside.
- Heat butter until foam subsides. Sautee salted egg yolk and sugar until sugar melts.
- Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well.
- Chill until mixture is firm.
If you take a closer look, you will realise that the main ingredient of salted egg custard is in fact not salted egg yolk. Salted egg yolk is a crucial ingredient, obviously. However, in this recipe for salted egg custard, only 50g out of 210g of ingredients is salted egg yolk. That makes less than 25 per cent of the liu sha. In another salted egg custard recipe by lirongs.com, the relative amount of salted egg yolk was even lower at only 20 per cent.
In a typical recipe for salted egg custard, it seems like butter forms the most part of it.
What’s the hype?
When dim sum houses introduced liu sha in salted egg custard buns, it became all the rage of 2014. A relentless reinvention of salted egg flavours then came into play as chefs began to incorporate the mixture into different food items.
The novelty of its flavour resides in the savoury notes of salted egg against a custard creaminess. Its recent ascent from plates to pastry has been captured in yet another unconventional pairing, the liu sha croissant. It is essentially a buttery, flaky breakfast pastry cradling a molten salted egg custard filling. In Hong Kong, European bakery chain “Urban Bakery” launched them in September 2014. In January this year, the croissant hype reached our shores, echoing the craze of its predecessor, the liu sha bao.
We spoke to Chef Shawn Koh of Flavour Flings Cafe, a pioneer of the liu sha croissant in Singapore. Initially, upon attaining the Halal certification, the chef’s sole intention was to create an alternate flavour of croissant for his Muslim guests to enjoy. Within three weeks, it became unimaginably popular with several bakeries and cafes following suit. Even big names like French-inspired patisserie chain “Antoinette” joined in. Now, at least six food outlets here have gone with the flow and started selling liu sha croissants. Each costs around $6 to $7.50, almost double the price of a normal plain croissant.
Liu sha or liu sham?
But are all salted egg foods made from scratch and from salted duck egg yolks? Perhaps not.
Speed and convenience matter to the professional chef. Enter salted egg powder, a one-step substitute typically used for stir-fried salted egg dishes. Each pack yields up to 68 egg yolks worth of powder.
Chefs behind popular restaurants like Park Royal, Mellben Seafood and Peach Garden Miramar use the powder, according to their testimonials online. They say the salted egg powder saves them the inconvenience of preparing salted egg sauce. Making the sauce from scratch is a time-consuming process of steaming salted egg yolks followed by blending it, or mashing it with a fork. With the mix, chefs could simply fry the powder with butter for a salted egg sauce.
Chef Koh too agreed that the product skipped about two steps of the traditional method. Although the cafe now completely abstains from using salted egg powder, he said “using (the powder) is faster” and creates “a more productive kitchen operation”. He attributes the convenience of salted egg powder to its property as a thickening agent, similar to custard powder. “It is easily thickened with liquid, and forms up as a sauce or paste,” he added.
At Flavour Flings Cafe, the recipe for its liu sha croissant filling initially comprised salted egg yolk powder only. But looking at feedback from many customers, the cafe decided to make its liu sha from scratch with steamed salted duck egg yolks. “Customers preferred a more a savoury and ‘sandy’ salted egg yolk lava,” Chef Koh said. The cafe decided to cut down on the sugar and load up on the salted eggs instead. Flavour Flings now uses 100 per cent salted duck egg yolk for its croissants’ lava filling. It sells up to 120 croissants per day on weekdays and on weekends, about 200 croissants. Despite his attempts to keep up with the boom, the croissants are sold out within two to three hours each time a new batch is ready.
Customers aren’t the only ones who notice the difference. David Yip of Gastronaut Diary felt that salted egg yolk powder fell short in terms of the unique taste and texture that freshly steamed, mashed salted egg yolks can offer. “For most salted egg lovers, we always look out for the grainy texture, rich orangey oil and aromatic taste,” he said. When it comes to salted egg sauce, he much prefers the sandy texture found in the freshly made versions adding that “the processed salted egg mix is too ‘smooth’ for me”.
Read salted duck egg yolks?
Under the nutritional information provided on the back of a package of salted egg yolk powder, the list of ingredients reads: Chicken Egg, Maltodextrin (a food additive), Shortening Powder (Contains Milk Protein), Yeast Extract, Creamer (Contains Milk Protein), Flavourings (Contains Egg), Colourings. The powder may contain traces of cereals containing gluten, soy, fish, crustacean, peanut, and tree nuts.
There is no mention of salted duck egg yolks. Chef Koh felt that perhaps chicken eggs were used in place of duck egg yolks as chicken eggs are usually cheaper. He also noticed that salted egg yolk powder, in general, gave the end product a brighter orange colour as compared to using real salted duck egg yolk. The vibrancy of this colour could be partly attributed to the colourings found in the powder. However, he pointed out that the colour of salted egg dishes is also dependent on other ingredients – like butter and milk – as well.
So the next time you catch yourself drooling over a picture of salted egg prawns or croissants, look past its gilded image (and maybe the several Instagram filters) and ask yourself, “Liu sha or liu sham?”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this report referred to “Chef David Koh of Flavour Flings Cafe”. This is incorrect. The chef’s name is “Shawn Koh”. We are sorry for the error.
Featured image of croissant by Flickr user stuv-spivack CC BY-SA 2.0
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