Chinese Spinach with Three Eggs (三蛋菜): Tender Chinese spinach cooked in a tasty ikan bilis broth with three kinds of eggs: century egg, salted duck egg and fresh chicken egg.
Chinese Spinach with three eggs (namely century egg, salted duck egg and fresh chicken egg) is a popular dish in Chinese restaurants. But did you know that the original vegetable used for san dan cai (三蛋菜) was not Chinese Spinach but Dog’s Teeth (狗齿 / gou chi), so-named because the leaves of this vegetable resemble dog canine teeth? Over time, this dish has evolved and Chinese Spinach became the favoured vegetable because it has a very soft and tender texture after cooking.
Which is the Best Chinese Spinach to use?
If you are cooking this dish, you can choose to use either Chinese Round Spinach (also known as 苋菜 xian cai in Chinese, heng cai in Hokkien and yin choy in Cantonese) or Chinese Sharp Spinach (look at the shape of the leaf to tell which is which). But I prefer to use Round Spinach, because it provides a more smooth and tender texture than the sharp elongated spinach.
Just don’t mix it up with Phuay Leng, which is a different kind of Chinese spinach usually served with braised mushrooms or abalone! Alternatively, you can also substitute Round Spinach for Milk Cabbage (奶白 / nai bai) or Wolfberry Leaves (枸杞 / gou qi / kau kee). This is a very healthy vegetable dish as very little oil is used and the light soupy gravy goes perfectly with plain white rice.
How to Choose Fresh Century Eggs and Salted Eggs?
The century eggs and salted eggs are the ingredients that give this Chinese Spinach with Trio of Egg dish its distinctive flavours, so make sure that you choose eggs that are fresh for best results! To choose century eggs which are fresh, make sure you choose those where the brown outer coating looks slightly damp, like the photo below.
As for the Salted Duck Eggs, you can either buy them fresh (uncooked) or pre-cooked. The ones in the supermarkets are usually fresh but you can get pre-cooked ones from the wet market to save time. I usually prefer to buy salted duck egg and century egg from the wet market, as I find that they are usually very fresh because of its high turnover. You can also get them at your local supermarket, but the inventory turnover tends to be lower, so you will need to check the eggs to make sure they are fresh.
To check the freshness of the Salted Duck Egg, the black mud layer should look likewise look slightly moist, and not dried up or cracked which would indicate that they are pretty old and no longer fresh.
How to Remove the Shell of Salted Duck Eggs
The shell of salted duck eggs is notoriously hard to remove after it is cooked. Instead of peeling the eggs the usual way, a faster way with much less wastage is to crack it open with a knife and scoop the egg out from the two halves of the shell. See the video below for a demonstration!
Chinese Spinach with Three Eggs
Chinese spinach cooked in a tasty ikan bilis broth with three kinds of eggs: century egg, salted duck egg and fresh chicken egg.
INGREDIENTS FOR CHINESE SPINACH WITH THREE EGGS (三蛋菜) (serves 5)
- Round Spinach, 2 packets
- Ikan Bilis, 30 gm
- Ginger, 4-5 slices
- Oil, 1 TBsp
- Boiling Water, 500 ml
- Sesame oil, 1/2 tsp
- Salted Egg (room temperature), 1
- Century Egg (room temperature), 1
- Chicken Eggs (room temperature), 2
- Coarse salt or fine salt, 1 TBsp (for washing the vegetable)
PREPARATION FOR CHINESE SPINACH WITH THREE EGGS (三蛋菜) (30 mins)
- Wash the ikan bilis and drain dry.
- Add the 1 TBsp of oil to the wok, then add the ginger and fry over high heat until fragrant.
- Add the ikan bilis and fry for 2 minutes until fragrant.
- Pour in the 500ml of boiling water and let the mixture simmer for 15-20 mins under low heat.
- In another small pot, add in water enough to cover 2 inches above the height of the salted egg and bring to a boil. (Don’t put the salted egg in yet.)
- Remove the black mud from the salted egg and wash it thoroughly.
- When the water is boiling, slowly lower the salted egg into the pot using a ladle to prevent it from cracking due to the sudden temperature change. Boil for 10-15 mins under medium heat. Remove the salted egg and allow to cool. Once cooled, you can remove the shell.
- Likewise remove the husky clay from the century egg and wash it. Then remove the shell.
- Cut the salted egg and the century egg into small cubes and set aside for later use.
- Separate the spinach leaves from the stems.
- Remove the fibrous skin of the stem as much as possible. You can do this easily by breaking each stem in two-inch lengths and then pulling along the stem. This should help to remove most of the skin.
- Add salt to a basin of water to wash the leaves and stems separately, as the salt helps to remove the mud. Thereafter, wash with water for another 2-3 times and drain.
- Crack 2 chicken eggs into a bowl. Separate out the egg yolks from the egg whites and beat lightly.
- Sieve the ikan bilis stock.
COOKING METHOD FOR CHINESE SPINACH WITH THREE EGGS (三蛋菜) (10 mins)
- Add the ikan bilis stock to the wok and bring to a boil over medium high heat.
- Add the spinach stems and cook for about 2 minutes.
- Add the spinach leaves and continue to cook for another 5 minutes or until soft.
- Add 1/2 tsp of sesame oil.
- Transfer the spinach into a dish, leaving the stock in the wok.
- When the stock is boiling, add the salted egg and cook for about 1 minute.
- Add the century egg and give it a gentle stir, being careful not to break up the egg cubes.
- Pour in the egg yolk and swirl gently for a minute.
- Then pour in the egg white into a swirl and turn off the heat.
- Toss the egg mixture by scooping from the bottom and flipping it over towards the centre of the wok.
- Lastly pour the egg mixture on the spinach and serve hot.
TOP TIPS FOR CHINESE SPINACH WITH THREE EGGS (三蛋菜)
- Make sure you remove all leaves with worm holes, rotting parts, and little black or yellow dots.
- It’s ok to cook spinach for a slightly longer time, unlike vegetables like chye sim or kailan. To test if the spinach is cooked, use the spatula to cut the stem to see if it breaks easily.
- Don’t discard the ikan bilis after sieving the stock, you can boil it one more time (but adding less water in the second round) to make additional stock to freeze for next time.
- For those who are allergic to ikan bilis, you can also use chicken bones to make the soup base.
- Wolfberries can also be added to enhance the flavour of this dish.
- Do not soak the vegetables in the salt water otherwise it will be very salty. For that matter, do not soak any vegetable in the water for too long because it will absorb the water. Then during cooking, the vegetable will release the water and the whole wok will be flooded with water. Moreover, most of the vitamins in the vegetables will be lost during prolonged soaking.
- To save time, you can buy pre-cooked salted eggs in the wet market. I usually prefer to buy salted duck egg and century egg from the wet market, as I find that they are usually very fresh because of its high turnover. You can also find them at your local supermarket, but the inventory turnover tends to be lower, so you will need to check the eggs to make sure they are fresh.
- To choose century eggs which are fresh, make sure you choose those where the brown outer coating looks slightly damp, like the photo below.
- Likewise for the salted duck egg, the black mud layer should look slightly moist and not dried up and cracked.
- Salted duck eggs are notoriously hard to peel when its cooked- you can use a knife to crack the egg into half then use a metal spoon to scoop out the egg. See video below.
Suggested Modifications for Special Diets
- Baby/Toddler-Friendly: Set aside some ikan bilis broth and a baby-sized portion of the spinach. Serve the spinach finely chopped in the broth, without the eggs.
- Child-Friendly: No modifications needed.
- Fish-Free: No modifications needed.
- Gluten-Free: No modifications needed.
- Nut-Free: No modifications needed.
- Shellfish-Free: No modifications needed.
- Vegetarian: Replace the ikan bilis broth with vegetable stock instead.