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All it's cracked up to be

Each time I say that eggs are the world’s most versatile food, I am bombarded with questions.

Here are some of the most frequently asked ones, and their answers.


Is the egg a part of the ancient Indian tradition?


Sadly, no. Even the eminent food historian KT Achaya, who usually managed to find a South Indian origin for everything, conceded that there are hardly any references to egg dishes in ancient Indian literature. But he concedes that the egg entered Indian cuisine only after Islamic influences began to show up in our food.


Isn’t this odd?


Yes, it is especially strange because research suggests that the wild jungle fowl was domesticated in the Indus Valley and then sent out to the Middle East. So, chicken is a very Indian contribution to global gastronomy.


   Two possibilities suggest themselves. It could be that the people of the Indus Valley domesticated the chicken for its flesh, not its eggs.


  A second possibility is that the people of the Indus Valley did eat eggs. But that as their cities collapsed, the egg-eating tradition died with them. The difficulty with this view is that it assumes that the Indus Valley civilisation predated Hinduism. This is a politically unfashionable view at the moment.


How can you tell from the outside if an egg is going to be any good?


It’s hard. But you can certainly tell whether an egg is fresh or not. As Heston Blumenthal points out, an egg changes as it grows older. If you fill a bowl with water and put an egg in it, then a fresh egg will lie on its side. A less fresh egg will begin to sit upright and an egg that is not so fresh will float, even to the surface.


   But the good news is that an older egg still has its uses. For poached or fried eggs you need fresh eggs with strong egg whites. Omelettes and soufflés suit older eggs.


"The eggs you eat are almost always unfertilised which means they would never hatch. So you are not taking a life when you eat an egg."

Isn’t the yellowness of the yolk a good test of the quality of an egg?


This is complicated. In India, the eggs you will get in the shops may come from a battery facility where hens are kept in boxes, fed cheap ‘chicken feed’ (yes, that’s where the term comes from) and forced to lay lots of eggs. Those eggs will have less flavour, watery whites and pale yolks. If you can afford better eggs, don’t buy this inferior stuff.


   Eggs that come from chickens that run around in a farm and eat grass and plants will not only taste better but the yolk will be brightly coloured because of the plant diet.


   Many years ago, I wrote in this column about a then-new company called Keggs that sold free-range eggs. Keggs eggs are now widely available as are free-range eggs from other farms. The highly regarded baker Mandakini Gupta (of Delhi’s Smitten Bakery) told about Romana’s eggs. Those are the most flavourful eggs I have eaten in India, chemical-free and farm-raised. The catch is that production is small, you have to contact the farm directly (@romanafarms on Instagram) and they deliver to Delhi only on weekends.


Are eggs vegetarian?


Ah, that old chestnut. Yes, they are. They do come from an animal (well, bird) but then so does milk. The eggs you eat are almost always unfertilised which means they would never hatch. So you are not taking a life when you eat an egg. Even Gandhiji, who was something of a fundamentalist when it came to vegetarianism, said that eggs were not what he called “flesh food”. He wrote “the hen is not allowed to see the cock and yet it lays eggs. A sterile egg never develops into a chick. Therefore, those who can take milk should have no objection to taking sterile eggs.”


Can strict vegetarians manage?


Abroad: No, never. Eggs turn up in everything from mayonnaise to cakes to some kinds of bread to ice-cream. You simply cannot avoid them. Most well-travelled strict vegetarians I know adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to eggs.


   It is now easier to avoid eggs in India because various chemicals are used to mimic their effects. So you get naans made without eggs, eggless mayonnaise and cakes without eggs.


   Are you better off stuffing your body with industrial chemicals rather than natural, sterilised (and therefore entirely vegetarian) eggs?


   Well, that’s entirely up to you.




  • kennaanna 19 Mar 2024

    It highlights how eggs became a part of Indian food culture due to Islamic influences and discusses the quality of eggs based on their source and freshness. The mention of rice purity could be subtly linked to the discussion on the quality of eggs, emphasizing the importance of choosing ethically sourced and natural ingredients for a higher standard of purity in one's diet.

Posted On: 03 Feb 2023 06:00 PM
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