Behind the Recipes

The Humble Appeal of Chinese Stir-Fried Tomatoes and Eggs

This simple yet surprisingly complex dish deserves its reputation as one of China's most beloved comfort foods.

Published Aug. 5, 2020.

The dish known as xihóngshì chǎo jidàn in Mandarin (faankeh chao dan in Cantonese) doesn't have the deepest roots in Chinese culinary tradition. It didn't come onto the scene until the early 20th century, when Chinese cooks first began incorporating tomatoes into their cooking. But that hasn't stopped this combination of pillowy eggs enrobed in a savory sweet tomato sauce from being one of the country's most beloved dishes. It's so popular, some Chinese food bloggers deem it the country's national dish. It's also an essential comfort food to Chinese immigrants and their families. In an ode to his mother's version in the New York Times, writer Francis Lam describes it as "the kind of dish that people say is the first thing they learned to cook, that fed them when they left home, that inspires sudden and irresistible cravings."

A typical version goes like this: Cook beaten eggs quickly in an oil‑slicked wok until they’re just set. Remove them from the wok and toss in aromatics such as ginger and garlic, along with chopped or sliced tomatoes. Cook until the tomatoes soften and release their juice. Return the eggs to the wok, stir everything together, and serve with plenty of steamed rice. It's hard to believe something so simple could be so good, but that's exactly what it is.

Some recipes call for whisking savory Shaoxing wine and nutty sesame oil into the eggs, which I found made the eggs taste even better. These ingredients had another benefit: They diluted the egg proteins, making it more difficult for them to bond and form tight curds. Another bonus: The extra moisture from the wine meant more steam to puff the eggs. Adding salt to the raw eggs also kept them from turning tough and seasoned them more evenly.

Most recipes call for cooking the eggs over medium-high heat. Though it might seem counterintuitive to apply lots of heat to something you want to stay soft and moist, it’s the best way to quickly produce steam before the eggs set. I followed suit, removing the eggs as soon as they were plump but still wet.

Next, I got to work on the tomato base. I grated a nub of ginger and sliced a few garlic cloves and some scallion whites for savory allium flavor, reserving the scallion greens to add later. Though fresh tomatoes are commonly used, I wanted a dish that would be reliably good year‑round, so I opted for canned tomatoes. I chose whole peeled tomatoes so that I could control their size, cutting them into 1-inch pieces that would be large enough not to get lost in the eggs.

When I added the tomatoes and their juice to the pan, the mixture was too thin, so I experimented with different approaches that I saw in recipes: stirring in a cornstarch slurry, adding ketchup, or simply reducing the mixture. The latter method won out. I seasoned the tomatoes with just enough sugar to enhance their flavor and then cooked them down until their juice thickened but the tomatoes themselves remained meaty and distinct.

How Tomato Met Egg in China

Tomatoes arrived in China around the late 16th century, but it took more than 300 years for Chinese cooks to view them as edible. In the early 20th century, foreign enclaves with Western restaurants sprang up in the newly established Republic of China, creating new demand for the fruit—known in the north as “western persimmon” (xihóngshÌ in Mandarin) and in the south as “foreign eggplant” (faankeh in Cantonese). Cultivation increased, and tomatoes began appearing in Chinese dishes. Around the 1940s, the now-iconic pairing of stir-fried tomatoes and eggs was born.

Once the tomato juice had reduced, I returned the eggs to the pan, breaking them up with a spatula into pieces about the size of the tomato chunks. A handful of the reserved scallion greens, cut into 1-inch lengths, added bright color and fresh, grassy flavor.

I may not have grown up craving this dish, but it tasted so satisfyingly cohesive, savory, and complex that I'll be craving it from now on.

Xīhóngshì Chǎo Jīdàn (Chinese Stir-Fried Tomatoes and Eggs)

This simple yet surprisingly complex dish deserves its reputation as one of China's most beloved comfort foods.
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