Chawan mushi is a perfect representative of these comforting, universally enjoyable dishes, which are hardly known in Europe and which surprise all those who still associate Japanese food with sushi and raw fish. For me it has all the qualities of a perfect dish: it is light and healthy, but filling; it is extremely versatile, both in terms of ingredients, as well as serving occasions, and, most of all, it tastes wonderful. It can be made in advance, then reheated or served cold and since it is prepared in individual containers, it also looks cute on the table. The only obligatory Asian ingredients here are sake and soy sauce, so I hope it’s accessible for home cooks all around the world. Accidentally, it’s perfect after short food indulgence periods, such as Easter.
Chawan Mushi (茶碗蒸し) was the first recipe I made from “The Japanese Cooking. A Simple Art” by Shizuo Tsuji, one of the best cookery books I have ever had and I have only slightly modified the amounts’ ratio. I have already written about this amazing dish almost a year ago, but here is a quick reminder. Chawan mushi, meaning “steamed in a tea cup”, is a light custardy mixture of seasoned stock (Japanese or Western) and eggs, to which different “fillings” are added. The traditional version includes a long list of ingredients (including ginko nuts!), but in my opinion this is a typical versatile dish that can easily be modified depending on one’s preferences, seasons or simply contents of one’s fridge.
My first chawan mushi was made with shrimp and green peas (see the recipe here), but I have already played with different meats, seafood, vegetables, mushrooms and the results were satisfactory every time. The ways to serve this custard are also endless: it’s perfect as a part of the main course, with rice and some Asian pickles, or Western way, with bread and a bowl of green salad dressed with vinaigrette. I find it excellent as a cold or warm starter, as an afternoon snack, as breakfast, as a picnic snack… Possibilities are endless.
Asparagus and egg are a well known successful pairing, so you will not be surprised if I say this is – at least now – my favourite version of chawan mushi. As a notorious carnivore I have added small pieces of chicken breast marinated in sake, but you can forget them and keep it strictly vegetarian. Shizuo Tsuji advises chicken stock if dashi is unavailable and, I will probably shock some Japanese cooks, but here, with bits of chicken I have definitely preferred chicken stock (I have tested both). (Of course vegetarians can use vegetable stock I guess).
If you don’t like asparagus, you might enjoy chawan mushi with shrimp and green peas:
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.
Mitsuba is the traditional herb served with Chawan Mushi (it is usually steamed on the top of the custard), but as you see I haven’t added it because my mistuba hasn’t even sprouted yet (check the lovely mitsuba decorated version on Nami’s blog (Just One Cookbook)). You can add any herbs on top, as long as they suit the ingredients, but frankly these custards were perfect without any herb.
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):
10 medium thick green asparagus (less than 1,5 cm thick in the thickest place) or double this amount if you want a vegetarian meal
2 small chicken breasts
1 tablespoon sake
300 ml dashi (Japanese stock) or chicken stock
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.
Cut off the toughest part of the the asparagus stalks’ (I usually cut off 1/4 if I use the above-mentioned, medium thick asparagus).
Cut the rest into bite sized pieces.
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 dashi (or 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 asparagus equally into four heatproof cups.
Put mitsuba leaves on top (click here to see how Nami ties them in a cute traditional way).
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.
If you use herbs which do not support well the heat, sprinkle chawan mushi with them just before serving.
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. Personally I think it is not necessary.
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!