Dip your spoon into a bowl of quivering, delicate egg custard and let it slip down your throat in a whisper of deliciousness. Chawanmushi is a savoury Japanese custard, steamed until barely set and silky soft. It can be served warm or cold, plain or studded with flavourful tidbits hiding under the blanket of golden egg. Just a few minutes and a few ingredients are all that's needed to put together this surprisingly simple appetizer or side dish. And it's a wonderful way to have a lighter start to the New Year! (Skip to recipe.)
This month for our Eat the World Recipe Challenge, we are jetting off to Japan. Land of cherry blossoms and temples, silk kimonos and rice paddies, bustling neon cities and stylistic anime, Japan is home to a distinctive ancient culture living in harmony with an urban, technology-oriented modern lifestyle.
And food is an extremely important part of that culture.
The Japanese are very passionate about what they eat, and preparing food in Japan is considered an art. Meals consists mainly of rice and seafood, but saying that oversimplifies the diverse, sophisticated, flavourful cuisine of this country of islands (almost 7000, to be exact). Presentation is extremely important in Japanese dishes, and Japanese chefs and home cooks take great pride in meticulously preparing and presenting beautifully arranged food. Chefs often train for many years to prepare even the most basic of dishes. Simplicity has been elevated to the highest of art forms in Japanese cuisine.
Chawanmushi, a simple egg custard, is a prime example of this. Just a few ingredients make up this delicate, silky bowl of custard, but the way this dish is prepared and steamed turns it into an explosion of visual, textural, and flavour sensations that make you remember it with a smile long after you've finished it.
Dig your spoon into that quivering cupful of barely set custard and break free a mouthful of silky umami cloud. It slips past your tongue with a whisper and glides down your throat with a sigh, leaving a trail of delicate flavour both nourishing and comforting.
The humble egg has found its calling.
Chawanmushi - Simple as Can Be
Chawanmushi is a simple and extremely light egg custard - eggs holding as much liquid as they can while still able to set without breaking when steamed. Any more liquid and they'd turn to soup. Less liquid and they'd be more dense. The perfect ratio is 1:3 - one part eggs to three parts flavourful liquid. Add a bit of soy sauce and salt. Add a few perfect fillings, and that's all you need (or you can even just steam the custard by itself for a simple savoury dish). Some recipes add a bit of mirin (sweet Japanese cooking wine) and sake (Japanese rice wine). You can add ½ to 1 teaspoon of each, but I find the chawanmushi doesn't even need them if you use a flavourful stock to start with.
Dashi, a Japanese stock made of seaweed and dried tuna flakes, is traditional for chawanmushi, but chicken stock is equally delicious. That's what I use when making them, as I don't have easy access to dashi, and the umami flavour in these little custards is deeply satisfying.
In Japanese, the word 'chawan' means 'tea cup' and 'mushi' means 'steamed', therefore the name Chawanmushi literally means 'steamed in a tea cup'. You can use special little porcelain chawanmushi cups made with matching lids to steam your custards, or you can use regular tea cups, ramekins, or custard cups (just cover them with foil or plastic wrap for steaming).
Become a Chawanmushi Master
The custard only needs a few ingredients: eggs, broth, soy sauce, and salt. Beat the eggs with chopsticks or a fork. Add the soy sauce and salt, then pour in the dashi broth or chicken stock. Strain the liquid through a fine mesh strainer to make a silky smooth custard.
Now prepare your choice of fillings. You can dice up a bit of raw chicken thigh or breast, or use a few raw shrimps.
If using raw chicken, shrimp, or fish slices, drizzle them with a bit of soy sauce (about ½ teaspoon) and let them marinate for about 10 minutes while you prepare the other ingredients. If you want to make carrot flowers to add a spot of brightness to your chawanmushi, peel a chunk of carrot and cut lengthwise v-shaped grooves down the sides all the way around. Cut off thin slices, then cook the slices in a pot with ½ inch of water for a few minutes until tender.
Fill chawanmushi cups or tea cups with your ingredients of choice. Put the meat items at the bottom, then top with other ingredients.
Pour the egg custard into the cups.
Pop any bubbles, then cover the cups with lids (if they come with them), plastic food wrap, or aluminum foil.
Set them into a preheated steamer - you can also use a pot with a steamer basket or rack to hold the cups above the water, a bamboo steamer, or set the cups right into a shallow amount of boiling water in a large pot.
Steam on high heat for 2 minutes, then on low heat for 13 minutes. Let rest for 5 minutes, and your beautiful silky chawanmushi custards will be set and jiggly.
Tricks for Getting a Great Chawanmushi
- Use a ratio of 1:3, one part eggs to 3 parts liquid. So if your eggs are bigger or smaller than the large eggs suggested in the recipe, measure them after beating and adjust the amount of liquid accordingly. Using this ratio also allows you to easily scale this recipe up or down.
- Make sure to strain your egg mixture through a fine-meshed sieve to remove the foam and bubbles, and to remove any stringy bits of egg, so you have a velvety smooth custard.
- Remove any remaining air bubbles from the custards by popping them with the corner of a paper towel before steaming them.
- Make sure to cover your custards with lids, plastic wrap or tin foil. This prevents condensation from dripping on them and marring the smooth tops of the custards, and it also keeps heat inside the cups for more even cooking and a smoother custard.
- If you don't have a steamer you can set the cups into an inch of boiling water in a pot (lay a clean dishcloth in the bottom to keep the cups from rattling around), and covering the pot.
- Use a chopstick to prop up the lid while steaming during the low-heat stage to make sure it doesn't get too hot inside the steamer. Too much heat will cause little air bubbles to form in the custard, making it look spongy, rather than silky smooth.
- Depending on the size of your cups and the heat of your stove, you may have to adjust the time of steaming.
Enjoy Your Japanese Egg Custard Delights
Chawanmushi is served in good Japanese restaurants, either as an appetizer or a side dish. It's wonderful served hot, but can also be delightful served chilled on a hot summer day. If you wish to reheat it, I've found that you can give it 30 to 40 seconds in a microwave and it's still great the next day (a lovely light breakfast or snack).
If you've properly steamed the custards, the inside will be smoothly set, with no little air bubbles. It may take some experimentation for the steaming time and temperature on your stove and with your pots and tea cups, but once you've got it figured out, you can whip up these delicacies quickly and easily. As you spoon out the custards, small amounts of broth will ooze out - that is a sign of a beautifully made chawanmushi. Enjoy the ethereal taste sensation of this lovely Japanese dish.
*If you'd like to try another really tasty Japanese dish, I highly recommend my easy Okonomiyaki (a delicious savoury cabbage pancake).
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Kitchen Frau Notes: You can use a flavourful chicken broth (homemade or purchased) or dashi broth to make chawanmushi. Dashi is a Japanese broth made of kombu seaweed and bonito (dried tuna shavings). If using dashi, you can make the broth fresh yourself (find many recipes online) or use instant dashi granules plus water. If using chicken broth, use a good quality one (or a good quality bouillon cube or paste to make it). Taste for seasoning and adjust if need be, as the salt levels in different chicken stocks can vary.
Tamari is a Japanese soy sauce that is smoother and less salty than regular soy sauce. (It is also usually gluten free - check the label). If you don't have tamari, substitute light soy sauce - don't use dark soy sauce as it will discolour the eggs too much.
Chawanmushi - Japanese Steamed Savoury Egg Custards
makes 3 portions
for the chawanmushi custard:
- 2 large eggs (100 ml total without shell)
- 1¼ cups (300ml) dashi* (see Notes, above) or chicken stock
- 1 teaspoon tamari soy sauce
- ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
add-ins (choose 3 to 5, if desired):
- raw shrimps, prawns, scallops, or thin slices of white fish or salmon, marinated with a dash of tamari
- boneless skinless chicken thigh or breast meat tenders, diced about ½-inch (1cm), marinated with a dash of tamari
- thin slices of raw white fish, marinated with a dash of tamari
- chunks of crab or imitation crab
- thin slices of shitake mushrooms, brown cremini mushrooms, or whole shimeji mushrooms
- thin slices of carrot, blanched in boiling water for a few minutes
- edamame, 2 or 3 per cup
- Japanese gingko nuts, 2 or 3 per cup
- Japanese steamed fish cake (kamaboko), thinly sliced (2 slices per cup)
- green onion/scallions, thinly sliced
- wild Japanese parsley (mitsuba), flat-leaf parsley, or cilantro sprigs
(*For 4 portions of custard: use 3 large eggs, 2 cups minus 2 tablespoons [450ml] of dashi or chicken stock, 1½ teaspoons tamari, and ⅓ teaspoon salt)
Break the eggs into a bowl and beat them with two chopsticks or a fork, trying to incorporate as little air as possible.
Add the dashi or chicken stock, soy sauce, and salt, and whisk to combine. Pour the mixture through a fine-meshed sieve into a spouted measuring cup or pitcher. Straining it removes excess bubbles and any stringy bits of egg so you have a smoother custard.
Into each of 3 Japanese Chawanmushi cups, ramekins, or tea cups, place your desired add-ins. Choose 3 to 5 items and just use a small amount of each. Place meat or seafood items in the bottom, and add the other ingredients on top.
- If using raw seafood, add a splash of tamari or mirin, stir to coat the seafood, and leave to marinate for a few minutes. Use only 1 prawn (or 2 small shrimp) per cup. If using scallops, dice or slice them thinly. If using fish, slice thinly and use only about 1 to 2 tablespoons in each cup.
- If using imitation crab meat, use 2 to 3 small chunks.
- If using fresh shitake mushrooms, cut off the stem and only use the cap, slicing it thinly. Add about ½ mushroom to each cup. If using dried shitake mushrooms, reconstitute them in hot water for 20 minutes first, then slice the caps thinly.
- If using edamame or gingko nuts, blanch them first then put 2 to 3 in each cup.
- If using carrots, cut v-shaped grooves down the sides of the carrot and thinly slice crosswise to make flower shapes. Blanch for 2 - 3 minutes in boiling water so they are tender. Use 1- to 2 slices per cup (I like to add the carrot slices on top of the mushrooms, so they don't sink to the bottom).
- If using a sprig of herb to decorate the top, you can add them before steaming, or right after steaming so they stay green. Tie a loose knot in the stem of the herb for an authentic touch.
Pour the egg custard over the add-ins, dividing it evenly between the cups. Break any bubbles on the surface of each egg cup with the corner of a paper towel. Cover the egg cups with lids (if they have them) or loosely with tin foil or plastic food wrap. This keeps water drips from falling on the surface and marring the tops of the custards when steaming, and also makes for smoother custards by keeping steam and heat inside each cup.
Set a steamer insert, metal steamer rack, or bamboo steamer over a pot with an inch of water in it. Bring the water to a boil, and place the covered custard cups in the steamer. Cover with a lid. If you don't have a steamer, you can choose a pot large enough to hold all three custard cups and add about 1 inch (2.5cm) of water to it. When the water boils, place a clean dishcloth in the bottom (to keep the cups from bouncing around) and place the filled and covered cups onto the cloth, right into the water in the pot. Cover with a lid and steam as instructed below.
Steam the custards for 2 minutes at high heat. Then reduce the temperature to medium-low so the water simmers, prop a chopstick or spoon under the lid to leave it slightly open, and steam the custards for 13 more minutes. (The chopstick or spoon lets some of the heat escape, so that the temperature doesn't get too high in the steamer.) The custards should be opaque right through the center of the tops. If they are not quite set (there's a slightly darker area in the middle where the egg is still uncooked), steam them for a few more minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, remove the chopstick under the lid and replace the lid tightly, then leave the custards in the steamer, off the heat, with the lid on, for 5 more minutes to finish setting up. Serve the Chawanmushi hot as an appetizer or side dish, or chill completely and serve it cold (nice on a hot summer day). Or you can reheat them for 30 to 40 seconds in the microwave the next day.
Check out all the wonderful Japanese dishes prepared by fellow Eat the World members and share with #eattheworld. Click here to find out how to join and have fun exploring a country a month in the kitchen with us!
Amy’s Cooking Adventures: Yoshinoya Beef Bowl (Gyudon)
A Day in the Life on the Farm: Japanese Rice
Culinary Adventures with Camilla: Kuri Kinton (Candied Chestnuts and Sweet Potatoes)
Cultureatz: Ramen Burger with Honey Teriyaki Sauce
Kitchen Frau: Chawanmushi (Steamed Savoury Egg Custard)
Sugarlovespices: Dorayaki with Chocolate Hazelnut Spread
Sneha’s Recipe: Vegetarian Omurice /Japanese Fried Rice Omelette
Pandemonium Noshery: Ginger Pork Stir Fry
Palatable Pastime: Edamame with Sakura Dipping Sauce
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Check out my past ‘Eat the World’ Recipe Challenge posts:
(in alphabetical order)
- Argentina: Red Chimichurri Sauce
- Bangladesh: Chingri Masala (Shrimp Curry)
- Bulgaria: Patatnik (Savoury Potato and Cheese Pie)
- Cambodia: Noum Kong (Cambodian Rice Flour Doughnuts)
- China: Kung Pao Chicken
- Colombia: Pan de Yuca (Warm Cheese Buns)
- Egypt: Fava Beans and Feta
- England: Gluten Free Fish and Chips and Mushy Peas
- Ethiopia: Four Ethiopian Recipes for a Fantastic Feast
- Fiji: Spiced Sweet Potato and Banana Salad
- Finland: Lohikeitto (Creamy Salmon, Potato, and Dill Soup)
- France: Axoa d’Espelette (A Simple Stew from the Basque Country)
- Georgia: Charkhlis Chogi (Beets with Sour Cherry Sauce)
- Greece: Moussaka
- Guyana: Fried Tilapia in Oil & Vinegar Sauce (fish dish)
- Hungary: Túrós Csusza (Pasta Scraps with Cottage Cheese)
- India: Kerala Upma (Fluffy, Kerala Style Breakfast Upma Recipe)
- Iraq: Tepsi Baytinijan (Eggplant & Meatball Casserole)
- Ireland: Dublin Coddle (A tasty Sausage and Potato Stew)
- Israel: Cucumber, Feta, and Watermelon Salad
- Jamaica: Rice and Peas (Coconut Rice and Red Beans)
- Kenya: Maharagwe with Ugali (Red Beans with Cornmeal Slice)
- Laos: Ping Gai (Lao Grilled Chicken Wings)
- Lesotho: Chakalaka & Pap (Veggie & Bean Stew with Cornmeal Polenta)
- Luxembourg: Stäerzelen (Buckwheat Dumplings)
- Mexico: Cochinita Pibil Tacos (Pit Barbecued Pig to Make in Your Oven)
- Netherlands: Boerenkool Stamppot (Kale-Potato Mash with Sausages & Pears)
- New Zealand: Classic Pavlova
- Poland: Polish Honey Cake
- Portugal: Tuna and Sardine Pâtés
- Puerto Rico: Piña Colada Cocktail
- Scotland: Cranachan (Raspberry, Whisky & Oat Cream Parfaits)
- Senegal: Mafé (Beef and Peanut Stew)
- Sudan: Peanut Butter Creamed Spinach & Peanut Meringue Cookies
- Sweden: Swedish Meatballs with Cream Gravy
- Switzerland (Christmas): Basler Leckerli Cookies
- Thailand: Shrimp Laksa (Khung)
- Trinidad & Tobago: Peanut Butter Prunes
- Ukraine: Buckwheat Kasha with Beef
- United States (Soul Food): Smothered Pork Chops
- Uruguay: Torta de Fiambre (Baked Ham & Cheese Sandwiches)
- Vietnam: Caramelized Pork Rice Bowls