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Chawan Mushi (Japanese Savory Custard)

(recipe, Kelly Myers)


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Introduction

Chawan mushi is Japanese comfort food. To make chawan mushi, you should first make dashi, a stock of kombu and bonito flakes. Then the dashi is combined with egg to make a light custard that is steamed or baked in a hot water bath. Chawan mushi can contain chicken; shrimp; Japanese mushrooms such as shiitake, shimeji, or maitake; and green vegetables. This recipe contains shrimp and shiitakes. Chawan means cup or teacup, the vessel in which the custard is steamed. There are chawan mushi cups with lids sold in Japanese or Asian grocery stores. You can easily substitute heatproof ramekins or small bowls, and cover them tightly with foil. This recipe makes more dashi than is needed for the chawan mushi. Leftover dashi may be saved in the refrigerator for two days.

Ingredients

    Dashi
    1. 3 pieces kombu (dried edible kelp; see Note)
    2. 4½ cups cold water
    3. ½ cup bonito flakes (shavings of smoked dried fish; see Note)
    Custard
    1. 5 large or 10 small shrimp
    2. Kosher salt
    3. 1 tsp. sake (optional)
    4. 4 small to medium shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
    5. ¼ tsp. soy sauce
    6. 3 large eggs
    7. Mitsuba (Japanese parsley), shiso, or cilantro leaves for garnish (see Note)

    Steps

    1. Make the dashi: Wipe the kombu with a damp cloth. Heat the kombu and the water over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, or until the stock almost boils. Immediately remove the kombu. Take the broth off the heat and add the bonito flakes. Stir once, then let sit 5 minutes. Carefully pour the dashi into a bowl, leaving behind any residue; alternately, strain dashi through cheesecloth. Allow to cool to room temperature.
    2. Prep the shrimp: Peel and devein the shrimp. Cut large shrimp in half crosswise; if using small shrimp, leave them whole. Put the shrimp pieces in a bowl and sprinkle with salt and sake, if using, and stir. Let the shrimp marinate while you prepare the mushrooms and custard.
    3. Prep the mushrooms: Wipe the mushroom caps clean, cut in half, and place in the ramekins. Sprinkle soy sauce over the mushrooms.
    4. Distribute the shrimp pieces in the cups. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bring 2 quarts water to a simmer and hold until ready to use.
    5. Prep the custard: Break the eggs into a bowl and beat lightly with a fork (avoid making any bubbles). Stir in 2¼ cups dashi and season to taste with salt. Pour the custard through a wire mesh strainer. Skim any bubbles off the surface of the custard.
    6. Pour the custard over the mushrooms and shrimp, leaving a ¼-inch rim around the tops of the ramekins. Cover the cups with lids, if using, or cover each cup tightly with foil. Put the cups in a baking dish with ½ inch of space between them. Pour the simmering 2 quarts water into the dish to come halfway up the sides of the cups.
    7. Cook the chawan mushi: Bake at 375 degrees for 5 minutes, then turn the heat down to 325 degrees. Bake 25 minutes more and then check for doneness. The custard is done when set but still quite jiggly in the center, and a toothpick or paring knife inserted into the custard produces clear dashi. If the custard isn't quite done, continue baking and check at 3-to-5-minute intervals, so as not to overcook.
    8. Remove the custard from the oven. Top custards with a leaf or two of mitsuba or cilantro, or a torn piece of shiso, and re-cover. Allow custard to sit 5 minutes in its hot water bath, then remove and serve hot.

    Note

    Kombu and bonito flakes are available at Asian grocery stores and markets. Once opened, bonito flakes lose flavor quickly; if possible, buy them in small packets. Shiso leaves and mitsuba (aka Japanese parsley, an herb with a flavor of celery, lovage, and cedar) are available at Japanese grocery stores. Use mitsuba’s stems along with its leaves.