Custards often are thought of as desserts because in most cuisines, they are sweetened. But chawan mushi is a savory custard, flavored with dashi or fish stock and mixed with meat and seafood. Meat and custard might seem dissonant but think of it as a steamed, silky omelet in a cup then your taste buds will be delighted.
Chawan mushi means “steamed in a cup” which is exactly how it is prepared. Chawan mushi benefits from the wet steaming process as custards benefit from being cooked in a water bath or bain marie. A chawan is a small Japanese rice bowl. Use chawan with fitted lids, if possible. If not, you can use custard cups and aluminum foil.
The Chinese have several steamed egg dishes but the consistency is more like spongy scrambled eggs. Chawan mushi has the creaminess of custard and the rich flavor of meat, seafood and mushrooms. It is wonderful. Be careful not to oversteam it or cook it too quickly or the mixture can coddle. It should look like a silky flan with no pockets or air holes.
The addition of gingko nuts is very traditional, but you can omit them if they aren’t available in your area. Or, you can buy them online. Shell and peel them before using.
Chawan mushi is eaten as a first course in Japan and served with a spoon. But it makes a lovely light luncheon offering, too.
2 cups dashi or fish stock, room temperature
1 tsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. sake
1 chicken thigh, cut into bite-sized pieces
4 raw small shrimp, peeled, deveined
2 small Shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated and sliced thin
¼ cup kamaboko (pink and white fishcake) julienned into strips
8 gingko nuts, shelled and peeled
4 small mitsuba leaves (or spinach or watercress)*
In a small bowl, lightly beat eggs. Do not aerate them. Add dashi, soy sauce, sugar and sake. In each of four chawan bowls, place equal amounts of chicken, shrimp, mushroom, gingko nuts and kamaboko. Pour the egg mixture through a fine sieve then carefully pour equal amounts of strained egg mixture over fillings in chawan bowls. Only fill the bowls about half full. Place watercress strips or mitsuba leaves on top. Cover with chawan lids or aluminum foil. In a steamer, bring water to boil. Place chawans in steamer, cover and reduce heat to low. Steam for 15 minutes. Check for doneness by gently giving the bowls a shake. The filling should be somewhat set around the edges with some jiggling in the center. Some people poke the center with a bamboo skewer but I do not advise that as the custard make give a false reading!
When you dip near the bottom of the cooked chawan mushi, some dashi that separated from the egg mixture may flow upwards. This is common and does not denote that the custard was not cooked well.
*Use whatever small greens that are fresh and in season.