Chawan Mushi: Comfort in a Cup


Today the high temperature here will be 26 deg. Fahrenheit. It sounds even colder in Celsius: -3 deg.Brrrrrrrrr…

When the weather outside is frightful, it’s nice to have a little something extra to warm you up on the inside. We’ve been getting some harsh winds and cold temps (but little snow) so yes, we’ve had our share of soupsteas, hot cereal and Glühwein this winter. But if you’re looking for a different kind of warming cup to chase away the chill, how about a savory steamed custard?

Chawan Mushi is a Japanese cold-weather classic: delicate egg custard in a light sea-scented broth with hidden treasures, no less — sake-marinated chicken and/or shrimp, pretty pink or red fishcake fans, shiitake mushroom, maybe even a gingko nut or fresh watercress or mitsuba. Despite the fact that my mother is Okinawan (or maybe because she was Okinawan?), she did not often make this when we were growing up. In fact, I don’t remember ever having one of these until I was in college! One taste, though, and it was love at first slurp.

For me, the anticipation of breaking the surface of chawan mushi is very much akin to that delightful moment just as your spoon cracks the glass of burnt sugar crowning a creme brulee. Despite the great anticipation, you almost see your spoon go into slow motion as it nears the egg surface. Then the spoon is under, and a rush of clear sweet dashi broth fills the gash. Your spoon returns with a piece of treasure: will it be a boozy piece of chicken, a shrimp butterfly, or a ginko nut? No matter which, you are the winner!

Chawan Mushi translates as “teacup steam” — a clue as to how it’s prepared and served. Although special lidded cups have evolved specifically to serve chawan mushi, any tall heat-proof cup that will hold at least 4 fluid ounces (120ml) will make do in a pinch. For the first batch, I even used another type of steamed-egg vessel as a pretty chawan mushi cup — an English egg coddler! I’ve always admired porcelain coddlers, though I’ve never had an actual coddled egg (basically, a seasoned soft “boiled” egg cooked with steam). I found this one in a second-hand shop and now it can do double-duty for this too! The coddler was a little small, which meant less custard once the yummy fillings were placed on the bottom. But that only means you might have to eat two!

Sometimes, we cooks can be intimidated about trying something in the kitchen that seems exotic to us, or even something that we just haven’t done before. (I know I can be.) In truth, making chawan mushi is a lot like making that other great egg custard, the quiche. If you can make quiche, you can make this — and you don’t have to make a pie crust! In both cases, the standard of perfection is the quiver — that precise moment when the egg just sets and is cooked through, but is still a delicate, jiggly mass on the verge of collapse. The key to cooking in both cases is lower, even heat so the center has a chance to set before the edges turn to rubber.

Since I only had the memory of mom’s chawan mushi as a guide but no recipe, I turned to the Interwebs to look for those tried and true home-tested recipes for which I’ve come to rely on my fellow bloggers. I’ve tried making chawan mushi using a recipe from a book before, but I know there are so many more out there!

Many that I saw did not marinate the meats before cooking, and I have a clear memory of sake-flavored cubes of chicken and shrimp draped in eggy goodness (also flavored with sake). In the end, I went with Francis’ recipe from hisyoutube video series, “Cooking with Dog,” which he hosts and narrates. For those who have yet to discover Francis’ innovative instructional videos, this is what you need to know: Francis IS the Dog! A grey poodle, I think. And in his perfect, accented English he talks viewers through step-by-step directions for making several dozen popular Japanese dishes while they are demonstrated and prepared by the unnamed human sous chef to his left. Firmly putting aside hygiene concerns about a dog in the kitchen, you can’t help but be entertained by this unlikely duo — and if you’re not careful you’ll also actually learn to make these Japanese favorites! I adapted Francis’ recipe (below) for quantity and filling ingredients, but here for your viewing pleasure and edification is Francis and Friend on making chawan mushi:

So if you’ve no place to go, let it snow, let it snow! You can stay home and comfort yourself up with a (tea)cup of warm egg-y goodness. Me, I’ll be practicing until we get the Quiver.

(adapted from Francis’ recipe in above video)
Serves 4 persons
Let me make this clear: this is not a dessert. Chawan mushi would make a decadent brunch entree — a change-up from Eggs Benedict, for sure. It would also make a unique, light starter for a winter dinner menu. In either case, serve with your favorite bubbly.

For the Fillings:
½ boneless, skinless chicken thigh, cut into 8 pieces
4 small raw shrimp, preferably with tails on (it’s just for show, but I like seeing the tails above the custard)
2 tsp mirin, divided
(or 2 tsp sake + 1/2 tsp raw sugar, stir to dissolve sugar, then divide)
1 tsp shoyu (soy sauce), divided
4 ginko nuts, if using
(we didn’t have any so I used fresh baby corn instead)
1 fresh shiitake or black mushroom, cut into quarters or sixths (whatever will fit your cup)

In 2 small bowls, place 1 tsp mirin and ½ tsp shoyu in each bowl. Put chicken pieces in one bowl, and shrimp in the other. Stir to coat meat/shrimp well. Set aside for 10 minutes.

Prepare your steamer. If you’re using a towel on your lid, as shown in Francis’ video, a simple rubber band will help keep the ends of the towel away from the heat source. Not as much of a problem if you’re using a flat-top cooking surface, but for gas and even conventional electric stoves a towel can become a fire hazard.

Set your steaming vessel over high heat to get it going, then turn down to medium and keep it at that heat.

Place the bowl with the chicken and marinade in the steamer and cook for 8-10 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken pieces. Remove and set aside.

Place 2 pieces of chicken, 1 shrimp (raw), gingko (if using) and a piece of mushroom on the bottom of each cup. Set aside while you prepare the custard.

(If this serves 4, how come there are only 3 cups?
Because I took a cue from Judy at Bebe Love Okazu
to make one super-size cup — it was actually a bowl —
of all the left-overs for one lucky someone**)

For the Custard:
2 cups (500ml) warm water (or homemade katsuo dashi broth, then skip the hon dashi)
1½ tsp hon dashi (powdered bonito broth)
1 TBL sake
1 tsp shoyu
½ tsp sea salt
3 large eggs

Mitsuba leaves to garnish (this is the traditional garnish, these photos show flat-leaf parsley)

The type of soy sauce called for in this recipe, usukuchi, is not what we know in the West as “light soy sauce”, which is low-sodium soy sauce. Since we didn’t have usukuchi and I was using the stronger, sweeter regular shoyu, I increased the amount of sake, cut down the amount of regular shoyu and included some sea salt, which I would have left out completely if using usukuchi.

Add hon dashi to warm water and stir to dissolve, add sake, shoyu and salt.

Beat together 3 eggs. Strain through a medium fine strainer to remove the stringy bits (the chalaza) and any large bits of egg white. Add seasoned dashi liquid to eggs and stir gently to combine, try not to get too many bubbles on the egg surface. If you like, you can remove bubbles with a teaspoon before proceeding.

With a small ladle (a Chinese soup spoon works well for this), carefully spoon custard over filling ingredients in the cup. Some ingredients may start to float if you add too much custard. I only add enough to just cover the shrimp meat so the fillings don’t come to the surface. Again, if there are any bubbles on the egg surface, you can “scoop” them out with a spoon — bubbles on the surface will pop during steaming and leave an undesirable pock mark on your custard.

Place your cups in the steamer. Cover and allow to steam for 10-20 minutes, or until custard is just set. You can check by gently separating one edge of the custard from the cup: if it fills with clear liquid, the custard is ready to eat, otherwise steam a little longer.

Remove carefully from steamer, and top with mitsuba, or other green for garnish. Cover and bring to table. Best eaten while hot!

The first batch in these photos did not meet the “Quiver Standard” to which all chawan mushi must be held. It tasted good, but there was no quiver. I want the quiver, darn it! Of course, this means I will have to do this again. Probably more than once. (I’ll update this with a photo of the Quiver when I get it right.)

**This was what was in the bonus bowl… You’ll have to ask T. how it tasted!!