Rich and laden with umami goodness, salted egg-flavoured fare has its roots in local zichar cooking where ingredients like squid, pork ribs, crab and fried fish skin are tossed in the creamy sauce with curry leaves and chilli padi. It is a moreish flavour that has captured the tastebuds of the nation.
In 2016, just as the salted egg yolk trend was taking off in Singapore, childhood friends Kenny Ng, Melvin Wong and Teo Woo Yang decided to go into business together to create a brand of salted egg yolk fish skin snacks for retail. Though there were already other brands in the market, the three — who hadn’t tried any of the other brands before embarking on their business — decided to set a gold standard for their product: their packaged salted egg yolk fish skin snacks would look and taste like they were freshly cooked at a zichar restaurant.
The transparency and, therefore, oiliness, of each salted duck egg yolk; the particular species of fish that had the best texture of skin after frying; the balance of the seasoning; the temperature and motion that would cause the egg yolk sauce to coat the fish skin just right — these were just some of the complexities that the trio had to figure out on their journey to creating a quality product.
Once they had hit upon the right formula, they got creative and started experimenting with flavours that were on trend in Singapore. Today, you can find Crusty’s original Salted Egg Fish Skin, Mala Hotpot Salted Egg Fish Skin and Truffle Salted Egg Fish Skin at its flagship store in Chinatown and retail locations like NTUC Fairprice, Cheers and Golden Village cinemas.
What do you look out for in a good packet of salted egg fish skin?
TWY: We grew up eating at this zichar restaurant in East Coast, so when we first thought of packaging salted egg fish skin as a snack, we wanted it zichar standard. Crusty’s products have a shelf life of a year even without preservatives, thanks to our cooking and packaging methods. When you pour it out on a plate, it looks and tastes like it’s been freshly fried at a zichar stall.
MW: First of all, you want to see colour. The fish skin cannot be too pale, it has to look golden brown with real chilli and curry leaves. We look at the coating on the skin, it cannot be too hard or curled up into a hard lump. Each packet has to be consistent and have a balanced mix of big pieces of fish skin and the tasty crumbs.
Tell us about fish skin: what kind of fish is best and how do you get it so crispy?
KN: We did a lot of R&D on this. Salmon is a bit too salty and tilapia is too rough. We liked the skin of dory fish for its texture and size. But one of the surprising things we found out is that during different seasons, the size of the dory fish is different and some months the skins come in bigger pieces and we have to break it down to get consistent sizes. We get our fish skin from a supplier in Vietnam who pre-fries the skin for us. The rest of the fish goes to its other products like frozen fish fillets for fish and chips.
MW: Our chef consultant gave us the tip that the fish skins need to be fried twice to get it to that level of crispiness you get when you order a fresh plate of salted egg fish skin at zichar restaurants. Dory fish is a freshwater fish, so cooking it twice also helps get rid of the fishy smell.
TWY: About two to 2.5 salted egg yolks go into each packet, depending on the size of the yolks from the supplier. We use real salted egg yolks from duck eggs, which we steam and mash ourselves before mixing it with seasoning.
KN: There are two types of salted egg yolks: the ones from Vietnam are more yellow than the orangey ones we get from China. It’s the orange ones that have a nice depth of flavour. In the early stages, we also experimented with powdered salted egg yolk but these were mostly made from chicken eggs which didn’t have the same umami that duck eggs have.
Zichar-style salted egg fish skin is almost impossible to recreate at home. Why is this so?
MW: I think it’s because there’s a fine balance you need to achieve with the oiliness. The oil comes from the salted egg yolks, the fish skin and the margarine. If the mixture is too oily, the fish skin won’t be crispy, but if it’s too dry, then the salted egg yolk and seasoning won’t coat well.
KN: It’s also the temperature. The oil has to be at an exact temperature of 190°C or the skin won’t be crispy. Not many people know this, but at the right temperature, the salted egg and margarine mixture will start to foam. It’s the foaming that allows it to coat the fish skin nicely.
MW: We were the first to come up with the mala spice and salted egg combination for fish skin. The spiciness works very well with the creamy, savoury flavours of salted egg.
KN: Melvin likes to cook at home and experiment when he’s off work. One time he just said: “Let’s try truffle!” and brought in a bottle of truffle oil and we all thought it was really good. We have a shop in Chinatown that’s frequented by tourists and that’s the flavour they like.
TWY: One interesting flavour we are working on is a sweet one — salted egg caramel. It’s similar to the Korean honey butter flavour. We might release that as a festive seasonal flavour in the future.