Eggs have long been regarded as cholesterol bombs by the medical profession and, until 2007, the British Heart Association recommended a maximum intake of three eggs a week. Fortunately, this myth has been exploded by more recent studies that show that it is OK to dig into your omelettes without fear of clogging your arteries: it is the saturated fats, smoking and sedentary lifestyle that cause your cholesterol level to rise. These findings have apparently not yet reached our shores as our doctors and dieticians routinely recommend a no/low egg diet to patients with any form of heart disease.
Luckily, I usually ignore my doctors’ advice unless it conforms to my own tastes and desires. In this case, I must confess my partiality to half-boiled eggs, a fluffy omelette, and a plate of slightly runny scrambled eggs. So, despite my decade-old heart-related issues, I have continued enjoying eggs in various forms, and my occasional guilt pangs have disappeared after the 2007 study was published. But before readers take this as a license to have threeegg omelettes for breakfast every morning, let me also say that I don’t smoke, do manage to get some exercise most days, and don’t use much fat when I cook.
One thing I insist on is fresh, free-range, organic desi eggs. The pale, battery-produced variety is devoid of flavour, and often has a slightly fishy odour from the cheap diet the poor hens are given in their cramped sheds. When I’m in England, as I am now, we often stop at farms to buy fresh eggs; here, I can usually see the hens running around happily in their large enclosures. Our local farmers’ market in Devizes is also a source of good, fresh eggs. And of course, supermarkets in the UK now stock organic, freerange poultry products.
Some of my earliest memories of food centre around eggs: hardboiled eggs sold in trains on a cold winter trip to Lahore, and the deliciously runny yolk of a fried egg on toast for breakfast. Even now, Sunday breakfast at home in Karachi consists of tikias, aloo ki tarkari and desi omelette. This is still my favourite morning meal in the world. A quick word about the desi omelette: I find that when onions are chopped into the beaten eggs, their flavour is too raw and kills the egg’s subtle taste. I prefer to gently fry the onion, garlic, ginger and chillies, together with a few chopped coriander leaves in a little olive oil first. Once the onions are soft (but not brown), I scoop the ingredients out with a slotted spoon and put in a knob of butter into the same frying pan. As soon as the butter is hot, the beaten eggs with salt and freshly ground pepper go in, and once they begin to set, the onion filling is gently eased into the centre. Now, the liquid eggs in the middle are drained to the side, and allowed to slide under the setting omelette at the edges. While the centre is still liquid but getting firm, the omelette is folded with a spatula and cooked until golden brown on both sides, but soft within. This calls for practise, but even if you break it up, it’ll still taste very good. Oh yes, do try and get a heavy frying pan so the heat is evenly spread.
Often, the words ‘he can’t even boil an egg’ are used to describe somebody devoid of culinary skills. However, even boiling an egg requires some basic knowledge. For instance, if you take an egg from the fridge and put it directly into a pan of boiling water, you risk cracking the shell due to the temperature difference. I start heating the water with the eggs already in the pan. Once the water begins boiling, lower the heat so the eggs cook in simmering water, avoiding the danger of the shell breaking in a roiling boil. For a soft-boiled egg, you need to cook it for exactly three minutes from the moment the water begins to boil. Remember to drain the hot water immediately, and pour some cold water over the eggs; otherwise they will continue cooking inside their shells. For a hard-boiled one, you’ll need around six minutes. If you suspect an egg is past its prime, just put it in a glass of salt water. If it heads straight for the bottom, it’s fresh. But if it floats, you can chuck it away.
One reason the return of eggs to a normal diet is such good news is that they are the perfect source of protein, apart from being wonderfully versatile. They are used extensively in a wide range of dishes, from sauces to baking cakes to making ice cream. Their usefulness in the kitchen is due to their ability to bind different ingredients. The Larousse Gastronomique, probably the best foodie encyclopaedia ever published, has seven pages on recipes for eggs, as well as 24 ways of making omelettes. Here is a small extract:
“Eggs are nutritious, inexpensive, and probably the most versatile ingredient in cooking. They are of prime importance in many branches of the food industry, especially those concerned with making pasta, ices, biscuits and cakes… But an egg is also a food in itself, which can be cooked in a great variety of ways and served with all sorts of garnishes…”