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Seriously Asian: Chawan Mushi

[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

After the sensory overload of Thanksgiving, all I want are the pure, soothing flavors of Japanese cuisine. Most Japanese recipes involve some combination of dashi, soy sauce, sake, and mirin, yet the sum of these few components is always greater than the parts. Aside from umami-intensive soy sauce, it must be all those free-flowing glutamates present in dashi that lend such complexity to each dish.

Most of the dashi I make goes towards miso soup and chawan mushi, the latter of which is not nearly as common in Japanese restaurants. Chawan mushi is an egg custard—the most delicate, ethereal egg custard I know of. The trick is to use as much liquid as possible in proportion to the eggs, which produces the soft, silky texture that's the mark of an impeccable chawan mushi.

When properly made, the custard should be barely set and quivering. We often use the word "quivering" to describe custard dishes, yet not all textures are delicate to such a degree. Crème brûlée, for instance, is not so much "quivering" as "creamy," and flan is better described as "jiggly." But chawan mushi truly quivers, a trembling mass of custard that seems to glide down your throat.

The Chinese make a similar egg custard from meat stock. Compared to chawan mushi, the Chinese version seems thick and clumsy. Both the Chinese and Japanese renditions start with a combination of eggs and liquid, steamed gently until set. But the Japanese version varies in two important ways. First, the proportion of liquid to eggs is much greater, such that the end result is impossibly silky. Second, the liquid for chawan mushi must be strained through a cheesecloth prior to being steamed.

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These two procedural differences are key. Straining the liquid through the even finer sieve of a cheesecloth catches the wiry strands of egg whites as well as other potential impurities. Stretching out the eggs until the liquid is barely capable of congealing—more than two-thirds cup liquid per egg—is another attribute of the Japanese version that makes it so distinctive. Oftentimes, I've broken chawan mushi by adding one too many tablespoons of dashi, making it impossible for the eggs to congeal into custard.

It's never much of a problem to eat the mistakes. Chawan mushi is delicious even when it breaks. Instead of congealing, the eggs become suspended in the liquid, much like the appearance of miso paste in dashi. When this happens, the custard becomes a cloudy soup with a thicker yet airy texture.

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Chawan mushi is best with additions of meat, seafood, and vegetables. Shiitake mushrooms, spinach, shrimp, and chicken are common additions to the custard, but many items pair well with the combination of eggs and dashi. I like to use enokitake, a long, thin white mushroom commonly available at Asian markets. Enokitake possesses a woodsy taste; added to the custard, the mushrooms are best when sautéed beforehand, which reduces the liquid content and concentrates the flavor of the mushroom.

Finally, chawan mushi is only as good as the dashi you use. Start with freshly made dashi for the most flavorful results. You'll know you've succeeded when your spoon slinks down into the custard; the tiniest amount of broth will exude, an indication that the mixture just nearly missed its breaking point.

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, My Chalkboard Fridge.

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