The first time I saw "salt-cured egg yolk" on a menu, I thought it was a typo. What arrived was even stranger than I expected.
A salt-cured egg is just that: an egg preserved in a salt brine—or packed in a paste made from salt and charcoal—then left to cure until it "cooks." As proteins in the white and yolk coagulate, the egg turns solid, albeit with a soft, jelly-like texture. When you remove the yolk and grate it you wind up with something possessing the texture of shaved Parmesan but a flavor that's all egg: sweet, rich, and only a tad salty.
There are more ways to cook with salted eggs, such as stir-frying them with other proteins or baking them into sweet buns, but it's the shaved egg powder you'll find most in New York restaurants. I don't remember what food my first salted egg yolks were shaved over, but I can't forget how much I loved eating what amounted to powdered mayonnaise.
Since then I've seen salted egg yolks on more and more menus—mostly Chinese, and mostly shaved over fried food. At Hop Shing, a dim sum restaurant in Chinatown that also serves larger dishes a la carte, the fried bits are tofu, and the Tofu with Dried Fresh Garlic ($10.99) comes in a heap that serves three at least. The bean curd cubes turn into soft, meaty pillows when fried, and they do well to soak up a curry-flavored sauce that makes them surprisingly flavorful. But it's the sweet salted egg yolk on top that adds dimension and a memorable richness to the dish.
Salted eggs work a special magic on food that's been battered before frying, which is the way you'll find them at La Vie en Szechuan and Legend. As the shaved yolk melts in your mouth it effectively forms a sauce for whatever fried morsels you're eating. At La Vie en Szechuan, that's delicate pearl mushrooms ($18.95) encased in a thin batter, something I wish bars would serve instead of nuts. At Legend, corn kernels and small pieces of fresh shrimp ($16.95) get the batter treatment—too heavy to eat a large portion, but brilliant in small bites in between the restaurant's chili-ravaged dishes.
In both cases, the egg powder adds a richness that you only get when it melts on your tongue, a concept similar to David Chang's shaved foie gras torchon at Momofuku Ko and copied by more than a few chefs elsewhere. But considering salted eggs cost a mere fraction of foie gras, could more chefs catch on to the idea some day? One can only hope.