A Savory Surprise from Japan
Until I began my love affair with Japanese food, at the age of fifteen, I wasn’t very thrilled to be served custard of any form or flavor. For me, the word “custard” conjured up a vile, sickeningly sweet concoction that was best consigned to the garbage. But chawan-mushi, Japan’s delectable savory version, expanded my horizon—at least regarding custard.
It’s hard to categorize chawan-mushi: it can be classified as a soup, or a custard, or both. Although the egg mixture forms a custard, there is a noticeable amount of the soup in it as well. Delicious eaten hot, it is equally good as a chilled summer dish. For a slightly sweeter version, increase the amount of mirin (sweet sake). With a little imagination, numerous other variations can be created—in season, for instance, I would replace the shiitake mushroom with a sinful and expensive slice of matsutake, Japan’s premier and delicious mushroom.
The hardest part of making chawan-mushi is the cooking time; it will take a little practice to get it right. It’s not only a matter of steaming until the custard sets, but the steaming time also depends on the type of container used and the amount of bubbles in your custard. As far as possible, eliminate those bubbles so that your custard is smooth and silky.
- 3 oz. chicken breast meat boned and skinned
- 1 tablespoon sake
- 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
- 4 eggs
- 2-1/2 cups cold dashi* fish stock
- 2 teaspoons mirin sweet sake
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 4 small raw shrimp shelled and de-veined
- 8 uncooked gingko nuts shelled and peeled or 2 uncooked chestnuts, shelled, peeled, and halved
- 2 fresh shiitake mushrooms halved
- 8 fresh green peas parboiled, or 4 snow peas, strings removed, parboiled and halved
- 4 thin slices kamaboko steamed fishcake
Cut the chicken into eight pieces and marinate for 15 minutes in the sake and 1 tablespoon of soy sauce. Drain.
Beat the eggs and add the dashi, remaining soy sauce, mirin, and salt. Strain through cheesecloth or a fine sieve. Try to avoid making bubbles.
Distribute marinated chicken, shrimp, ginkgo nuts, mushrooms, peas, and fishcake among four custard cups. Pour the strained egg-dashi mixture over it until the custard cups are almost full. If there are any bubbles, prick them with a toothpick.
Preheat a steamer. Cover the cups with plastic wrap and steam for 15-20 minutes over medium heat. Check doneness by sticking a toothpick through the center; if egg sticks to the toothpick, continue steaming for a few more minutes. The top of the custard should be smooth and jiggle slightly if touched.
When cooked, remove the plastic wrap and place chopped trefoil or spinach in the center. Top with a few slivers of yuzu or lemon peel.
*Japan’s basic fish stock made from dried bonito shavings, kelp, or a combination of the two.
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mitsuba (trefoil) or parboiled spinach leaves
A few slivers of yuzu (Japanese citron) or lemon peel
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