Chawan Mushi is together with Okonomiyaki, among my favourite Japanese dishes. Its base, ( light savoury egg custard) is neutral enough to receive even the craziest ingredients, such as Thai basil, which I have been using more often than ever due to my recent Thai cooking frenzy. One day, ready to cut some mitsuba leaves, the chawan mushi herb par excellence, I turned to Thai basil and took it from my balcony instead. I wasn’t taking big risks, but I was glad this first Thai-inspired Chawan Mushi proved fantastic.
For those who hear about Chawan Mushi(茶碗蒸し) for the first time, it’s a delicate savoury egg and stock custard steamed in cups. “Mushi” means (more or less) “steamed” and “chawan”: tea bowl (or cup). My first chawan mushi was made according to Shizuo Tsuji’s instructions in “The Japanese Cooking. A Simple Art”, but already then I omitted some ingredients and created my own version. Apart from being easily modified, chawan mushi is perfect with buttered crusty bread (my favourite way!) and a green salad or other raw vegetables, but also with rice and Asian pickles. It can be served both hot and cold (the latter is particularly appreciated cooling meal on hot summer days). I have served this Thai cuisine-inspired chawan mushi with this chilli jelly:
but I’m certain it would taste perfect with sriracha or with the popular Thai sweet chilli sauce.
Thai basil (also called Asian basil and Bai Horapha/Horapha in Thai) is not the only basil used in Thai cuisine (usually three basil varieties are cited), but it’s very easy to recognise in Asian grocery shops by its very strong sweet licorice (or anis-seed) scent. Its leaves are usually green, but sometimes slightly coloured with violet hues and its flowers are always dark violet. It is very easy to grow from seeds (I have very good results even on my balcony), so if you cannot find it fresh, try sowing it. From my observations this basil is usually served cooked, added to hot dishes in the last stage of preparation. This use in Thai cuisine gave me the idea to steam horapha in Japanese custards, exactly the way the Japanese treat mitsuba and also the way I did with edible chrysanthemum leaves (shungiku, see below). I have decided to use chicken stock instead of dashi (I do it quite often in chawan mushi anyway) since it seemed to suit this herb better. As I have mentioned above, the experiment was a success and I advise it to all the Thai basil fans.
If you don’t like Thai basil (or cannot find it), you might like one of these:
TIPS: Even though chawan mushi is easier to prepare in a steamer, Shizuo Tsuji’s suggestion to use a water bath in the oven gives excellent results. Actually this is the way I prepare it because the steamer plate in my rice cooker is too low for my heatproof cups.
If you don’t have a nearby Japanese grocery shop, individual, but high heatproof cups may be difficult to get. I have found very good ones at IKEA (even though without lids), but as soon as I got hold of the beautiful Japanese chawan mushi cups you see above, I stopped using the old ones.
If you want, you can use some vegetables together with chicken (reduce the chicken amounts), but remember that certain vegetables and mushrooms will release juices. The custards will be watery, but the taste will be good of course. (You might want to precook or quickly fry them).
individual heatproof cups (at least 6 cm high, mine were 6,5 cm high, with a 7,5 cm diameter)
Preparation: 45 minutes
Ingredients (4 portions):
3 small chicken breasts (or 2 big)
1 tablespoon sake
one handful of Thai basil leaves (+some for decoration)
300 ml chicken stock (usually dashi, the Japanese stock, is used here, but I often replace it with chicken stock and here I found it a better choice for Thai basil)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sake or mirin (with mirin the custard will be slightly sweetish)
1 teaspoon soy sauce
Preheat the oven to 220°C (or prepare your steamer).
Cut up the chicken breasts into bite-sized pieces, combine with sake and sprinkle with a bit of salt.
Boil a lot of water and prepare a big baking dish at least as high as the heatproof cups.
Mix the eggs very delicately in a bowl. In another bowl combine the chicken stock, salt (it depends on how salty your stock is), sake/mirin and soy sauce. Pour the stock mixture over the eggs and stir well, without beating.
Strain the chicken pieces. Divide them and the Thai basil leaves equally into four heatproof cups.
Strain the custard mixture and pour into the garnished cups.
Cover the cups with aluminium foil or the lids if you have special cups with lids.
If you use the oven, place the cups in a big baking dish. Fill the dish with hot water (not boiling). The water should arrive up till 3/4 of the cups’ height.
Put the dish in the oven and let the custards bake for 30 minutes.
If you use a steamer, steam for about 20 minutes.
Serve hot or cold with bread/toast for breakfast, with a salad for a lunch, as a snack or as a starter.
You may serve it with soy sauce, but I found it great with my chilli jelly and, as I have mentioned above, it must be good with sriracha or the Thai sweet chilli sauce.
Even though the eggs’ mixture sets during the cooking process, the mushrooms or other vegetables might release juices, so think about putting a spoon on the table!