If you’re after the recipe. Skip to the how.
Or you can hang out here where we’re about to open a tall-can of knowledge.
If you’ve never encountered chawanmushi, it’s a wonderfully soothing dish; a simple broth, lightly seasoned and gently cooked until set as a delicate custard. It’s common to include small segments of meat or vegetables as a garnish, either on top or concealed within its silky bosom.
Now, the way I see it, this is not so much a dish as a technique; a basic illustration of principle, intrinsic to the act of cooking itself. Combine products, carefully apply heat, and the result is something entirely different from that with which you begin.
And like I said, it’s easy to fuck it up. But don’t let that discourage you. Serious cooking, the respectable kind, the kind that you can rely on, feel confident in, and maybe even expect people to pay you for, requires developing a powerful understanding of how to challenge your ingredients and coax from them something truly unique. Find that special property that an ingredient has, then learn to summon it at will.
Eggs have some ridiculously special properties. In this case, we’re interested in their ability to congeal into that magical structure known as custard.
WARNING: SCIENCE TALK
(if you’re not interested in why, just skip to how.)
According to Harold Mcgee, a custard is formed when heat coaxes the protein chains found in eggs to unravel and bond to each other. In order for these chains to bond sufficiently, some concentration of dissolved minerals is required. Mcgee explains on Pg. 94 of his masterwork, On Food and Cooking, “Mix an egg with a cup of plain water and you get curdled egg floating in water; include a pinch of salt and you get a coherent gel.”
Mmmmmmm… Coherent gel.
So, the reason custard happens is that those egg proteins (which hold a negative charge and therefore tend to repel each other) have been surrounded and neutralized by the presence of minerals (which tend to separate into positive and negative components known as ions when dissolved in a solution) allowing them to settle into a fine network (i.e. a custard). That is, the negative proteins take a portion of that energy they were using to push each other away and they invest it in pulling at the positive component of the dissolved mineral.
It’s kinda like a party full of dudes (the proteins) that don’t know each other. Everybody’s just standing around trying to look cool and intimidating. But when the chicks (Minerals) show up, suddenly everybody gets a little more comfortable. This is because the dudes are now paying more attention to getting close to the chicks and less attention to keeping each other separated. The dj gets rowdy, bodies start rubbing together, and magic happens.
The traditional base for chawanmushi is dashi stock. Dashi stock comes in many forms but it is invariably a simply flavored broth. Dashi is one of the main ingredients in Japanese cooking. The most common dashi is made by steeping kelp (i.e. kombu) and finely shaved flakes of smoked and cured tuna (i.e. katsuo bushi, or bonito flakes) in hot water. Dashi makes for a very good, traditional chawanmushi. Chicken stock is almost equally appreciated. I made some chawanmushi top ramen and it was surprisingly good. Start with the basics, then experiment.
So, jumping back to what Mcgee says, this means that the simplest custard imaginable must contain at least three ingredients: eggs, water, and minerals. Chawanmushi then, a mixture of egg, dashi, and seasoning, is about as simple as it gets.
How then, do we coax these few elements into loosening up and forming a nice, smooth, uniform custard?
The general consensus is this: gently beat eggs with chopsticks, strain, divide into small bowls and cook with steam for 15-20 minutes.
But this brings to mind four important questions:
1. Do I really have to whip the eggs with chopsticks?
- The point of using chopsticks here is to gently mix the ingredients without incorporating too much air, and you may find that many recipes stress this as an important detail. I’m gonna call it the least important step in this procedure. I honestly can’t tell much of a difference between a product that was whipped lightly with chopsticks and one which was whipped heavily with a whisk.
2. Why do I need to strain it, and should I strain the eggs alone or after they’ve been mixed with the dashi?
- If you don’t strain, your eggs do not incorporate correctly and you end up with small regions of slightly firmer texture suspended in your custard. The best way to describe this is to compare it to a loogie. Loogies often consist of a gelatinous globule containing a slightly tougher nugget or stringy element suspended within. Straining your chawanmushi helps you clear out those nuggets and stringy elements and avoid textural variation. I suggest straining the eggs after they have been incorporated into the dashi. The dashi speeds up the straining and creates no noticeable variation in the final product.
3. How important is the ratio of egg to liquid?
there is definitely some room to play here. A ratio of 3 large eggs to 2 cups of dashi is pretty standard, but I prefer to use 1 egg per cup of liquid. The texture is lighter, and a ratio of 1:1 is easy to remember. I tried a batch using 2 eggs (photo at right) per cup and it came out stiff, flan-like. The point here is to balance between a liquid and a solid. You’re trying to get as close as you can to a broth while still being able to take a bite out of it.
Find yourself some type of liquid. I suggest using a liquid with a pleasant flavor. For every cup of liquid you plan on chawanmushiing, add about one egg. Mix it up, pass the mixture through a fine strainer, and adjust the seasoning (don’t worry, salmonella builds character). Pour the results into serving size, ovenproof containers. Try to remove any small bubbles that have settled in the surface.
The final and most difficult element of this recipe is the cooking. Keep it simple. All you’re doing is carefully raising the temperature of your liquid until it sets. Should you raise the temperature of any part of the mixture too high, your custard will break.
I cook chawanmushi in one of two ways. Baking can be more forgiving, usually yields more consistent results, and makes it possible to cook a greater number of dishes simultaneously. Steaming is a little more entertaining though, as it requires some finesse.
method 1 (steaming): If you don’t have much experience cooking with steam, chawanmushi is a good place to start as it requires care and control. Put about 2 inches worth of water in a pot and figure out how to suspend your chawanmushi bowls over that water. The easy way would be to use a steaming insert of some type. A hard way would involve an array of tiny propellers. Now, bring the water to a gentle simmer. Meanwhile, cover your chawanmushi bowls tightly with foil or plastic wrap. This is to avoid having drops of falling condensation scar it’s surface. When your water is gently steaming, place your covered dishes in the pot and cover, leaving the lid propped open to allow some steam to escape. Set a timer for 10 minutes. You may need another 5 minutes.
Method 2 (baking): Preheat your oven to 400 F. Put a pot of water to boil. Wrap the chawanmushi cups individually in tin foil. Place them in an oven-safe dish with raised sides. Add boiling water to the dish until the water level is about half way up your chawanmushi cups. Put the whole deal in the oven and set a timer for 2o minutes. If you don’t boil the water first, it will take much longer to set.
A properly cooked chawanmushi should be set, but still jiggly. You can try to test them with a toothpick, but you won’t really know what you’re looking for until you’ve eaten a few, and a toothpick is going to mar the perfect surface you’re trying to create. So, eat it, decide how much you like it, then figure out what you want to do different next time.
Remember that this is not about following a recipe, but about understanding how to create a simple custard. Once you get the point behind the recipe, you can play with it, tweak it, and create something totally new. In fact, if you use milk instead of stock and you add a bunch of sugar, pour it over cubes of bread, and cook until set, you have bread pudding. You should know how to make a custard, it’ll come in handy some day.
Now go wash your bowls!