'12 by the Dozen: New Year Eggs

Monday, January 2, 2012 14 comments

Olive Oil-Poached Egg
"Ex ovo omnia" (Everything from an egg)

All I got for Christmas was a dozen eggs.

Well, I did get a bit more than just eggs and nearly all of them were also food or drink-related: a jar of fudgy chocolate crinkle cookies; a llanera (oval mould) of the creamiest, smoothest leche flan; and several bags of Filipino-grown coffee. But none could match in meaning the humble dozen of perfectly-shaped ovums from Abra province that my mother gave to me.

Packaged in a beautiful basket of hand-woven nipa palm leaves, each copper-colored egg was surprisingly hefty in weight, compared to their anemic, plastic-ensconced supermarket counterparts. Though cozily nestled within individual circlets, they hardly needed the extra coddling: when it came time to cook one, its supposedly delicate shell proved surprisingly resistant to all but the firmest tap against the pan's edge to crack open. Inside, the translucent albumen surrounded a gloriously orange yolk, making a breakfast fried egg look more like sunrise on a plate.

In an age when people will camp out in the freezing cold for holiday bargains or risk a faceful of pepper spray during a retail frenzy to grab the latest iGadget or 'It' product, a dozen eggs may not inspire such effort and enthusiasm as a gift. But as the new year begins, they proved to be a perfect present to represent a hopeful future...

New Day Around the World

The egg is a universal symbol of birth and rebirth, of new life and new beginnings. As an icon of a special holiday, it is more closely associated with the Christian tradition of Easter and spring than with New Year and winter. However, recognition of January 1 as the standard first day of the calendar year in Western culture has actually been in place for less than 400 years; before then, New Year's Day was also celebrated during springtime. By moving it from the vernal equinox to winter solstice, we ceded the season to Eastertide and left behind the egg as a symbol.

Today, many other cultures continue to usher in the New Year during springtime and the egg is an important object in their celebrations. During the Persian Nowruz (meaning 'new day'), which coincides with the first day of spring, painted eggs are part of the Haft-Sin (or Haft-Seen), a traditional table setting featuring 7 symbolic dishes beginning with the letter 'S'. Although the eggs now represent fertility, when taken with another item in the setting - a mirror - an older meaning emerges. At the hour of transition from old year to new, known as sa'at-i tahvil, family members gathered around to observe the display:
"Each one imagines a huge bullfish in the ocean of time carrying the world on one of its horns. Any moment now, the bullfish will toss the world over to the other horn, resulting in a tremor that will dislodge the egg and send it rolling to the side of the mirror. As soon as the egg rolls, [family members], rejoicing, kiss each other [and] exchange Nowruz greetings - eid-i shoma mobarak! (May you have an auspicious new year)... 
"The first thing to eat [at sa'at-i tahvil] should be an egg, because it is believed that eggs ensure good fortune. In fact... the patriarch of the family must eat all the eggs that have accompanied the candles placed for each offspring on the sofreh!"  (Bashiri, n.p.)
Nowruz Haft Sin with eggs and mirror.
(Photo from Wikimedia.org)
Spirited Celebration

Eggs are also prominent in the New Year celebrations of the Hmong people, an ethnic group originally from the mountainous areas of Southeast Asia. Raw eggs and incense sticks are displayed in a bowl of rice, then later cooked for a special ceremony called Hu Plig ('Calling of the Soul'). Part of many Hmong occasions, the Hu Plig summons spirits, both of the living and the departed, for different reasons: during a wedding, it joins the souls of the bride and groom, and encourages household spirits to welcome the new family member. In times of illness, which is believed to be caused by the soul wandering from the body, performing Hu Plig calls it back to corporeal health.

(Photo from Mekong&ChiangKhong/flickr)
For the Hmong New Year, usually celebrated in November or December, the ritual is a way for families to invite the souls of all loved ones to join in the festivities. As part of this Hu Plig, plain hard-boiled eggs are cooked, representing both blessings for the living and as offerings to the hungry departed. Afterwards, each (earthbound) person in the family receives an egg/blessing to eat. [Check out this video for a glimpse into a Hmong New Year Hu Plig.]

Science, Myth and Dreams

The symbolic power of the egg is recognized in other, even more mystical areas. In alchemy, which may be described as the philosophy- and metaphysics-influenced forerunner of modern chemistry, the philosophical egg was the vessel in which alchemical processes were created. The ovum is also a symbol of Prima Materia, "the original material from which the universe is created", with which one could make the Philosopher's Stone - the mythic substance that, among other powers, can supposedly turn lead into gold.

In dream interpretation, eggs represent many things, depending on what is being done with it. If an egg is being consumed or prepared as food, then it can symbolize nurturing, self care, fertility and birth. However, if it is viewed as a non-food object, then it can mean creative potential and new beginnings.

(Photo from Wikimedia.org)
Are You Eating Lucky?

In last year's post about Filipino New Year celebrations, I touched upon the tradition of gathering certain foods - usually in shapes and colors mimicking those of currency - to represent good luck and to invite prosperity in the coming months. Eggs were absent from this list and yet, from what I have learned above, they would seem to be equal, if not better, harbingers for a hopeful and successful twelve months.

The way I see it, an egg does not simply invite good luck to fall into our laps, as coin-shaped fruit or leafy greens seem to suggest. Instead, as its dream symbolism suggests, it is already heavy with the potential for success and good fortune enclosed within its shell, waiting to be cracked open and released. Even then, as with an alchemical process, a transformation must occur and extra effort still needed: an egg is an omelette only after it is beaten and cooked, or a cake after it is mixed into the batter and baked. Similarly, I can wish all I want to write a bestselling novel or make a million dollars, but in the end, it is up to me to make the effort and write the words or seize the lucrative opportunity in order to realize the potential. Blessings, gold or prima materia, something special awaits us in the New Year.

All I got for Christmas was a dozen eggs - and twelve months of exciting possibilities ahead.

Bashiri, Iraj. "History of the Persian New Year." Farsinet.com
Becker, Udo. Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols. NY: Continuum, 2000. pg 94.
O'Mally, Julia. "Spirit Gatherer: Shaman Plays Important Role in Hmong New Year's." Anchorage Daily News (via Anchorage School District). 26 Nov 2006.
Scripter, Sami and Sheng Yang. Cooking from the Heart: the Hmong Kitchen in America. Minneapolis: U of MN Press, 2009. pg 126.

Olive Oil-Poached Egg

What can you not do with an egg? Whether on its own, as an equal component in a dish or rendered invisible as a utilitarian ingredient, the possible uses for an egg in cookery are too numerous to list here. So, I'll share just one.

Last summer, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jaume Viñallonga, Executive Chef of Barcino, a multi-location wine and tapas restaurant in Metro Manila. A graduate of culinary school in Girona and trained in acclaimed restaurants, including the 3-Michelin star Akelarre in San Sebastián, this young Spanish chef is well-versed in modern cuisine, but prefers to eat simple and traditional Spanish fare at home. His vivid description of a favorite meal - egg cooked in olive oil - inspired me to try it myself, with some help from this video.

Except for the egg and olive oil, feel free to change up any of the seasonings to achieve your preferred flavors.


Olive oil
Pinch or two of dried herbs, such as oregano and thyme
Pinch of red pepper flakes
One small bay leaf
One garlic clove, peeled and smashed
Fresh herbs, minced (optional)

To make:

In a small fry pan (ideally about 4-5" in diameter), pour enough olive oil to cover about half of the egg and add dried herbs, pepper flakes, bay leaf and garlic. Heat over low temperature (according to the video, the oil is ready when it is hot but you can still touch it without getting burned).
Crack the egg into a small bowl then slide it into the oil. Cook until the egg white is firm, flicking the oil with a spoon or spatula to reach the yolk and other spots that are above the oil.
Remove egg with a slotted spoon. Sprinkle with salt and fresh herbs, and served with baguette slices.
Reserve the now-flavored oil for later use.

A couple of other egg dishes I hope to try soon:


  • vanillasugarblog said...

    your posts are always so interesting and diverse.
    one always learns something from you--this is good.
    have not poached anything in olive oil.
    I did see on tv, someone poach pork belly in duck fat.it was heavenly to see.

  • dudut said...

    some history you got there! very nice read!

    I share your opinion about eggs for new year, I actually kid B that instead of 12 fruits for the new year, why not 12 different kinds of eggs? we have lots here!

    lovely poached egg! think i can make this one :)

  • Lori said...

    I've always liked eggs, but recently I've really been coming around to them even more. In Asian dishes, over greens, etc. I have not yet conquered the poaching technique. I tried the Bobby Flay method with no success. Now I have to practice with this version. Lovely photos!

  • SKIP TO MALOU said...

    great read about eggs...i will never look at eggs the same way. you really do a great job writing relevant information on food and events Tracey. No blogger could do it better than you.
    Happy New year! Looking forward to read more posts and hopefully meet up with you this year!

  • lisa is cooking said...

    Your eggs were a beautiful gift! The basket and circles for each egg are so pretty. I love the thought of the potential contained in an egg, and that we release it. And, olive oil poaching is delicious. I need to try this at home. Happy New Year!

  • Hornsfan said...

    I adore your posts, always have, between the prose and informative content and the beautiful photos they are just amazing! The eggs are a beautiful gift, both symbolically and literally, what a neat basket! Thanks for sharing!

  • Jenni said...

    Reading all of the comments here, TN. You make so many people so happy with your in-depth and thoughtful style. Thanks for that. And for the lovely eggies.

  • MrsLavendula said...

    i don't know why i only saw this today but thank you for posting egg dishes! i love eggs =) i actually collect egg cooking gadgets! hehehe!

  • Dee said...

    I love your posts & this one is no different. I like the idea of eggs as a gift. Nice & such a positive message. Eggs poached in olive oil: must try soon!


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