The first wobbly bite of this silky smooth, savory Japanese egg custard will have you hooked. Bursting with a subtle yet mighty umami flavor (thanks to the high concentration of dashi soup stock), chawanmushi stimulates the appetite with its gentle seafood aroma, glides down the throat, and soothes the stomach with its warming touch. The perfect appetizer to awaken your taste buds.
What is Chawanmushi?
Chawanmushi is a dashi (Japanese soup stock) infused Japanese steamed egg dish that’s been around for over 300 years. Literally translating to “steamed tea bowl,” it is cooked in a dainty lidded cup and served warm. Some say this comforting Japanese dish originated in Kyoto and Osaka, while others claim Nagasaki to be the dish’s birthplace and cite Chinese cuisine as its inspiration.
At its core, chawanmushi only requires four simple ingredients: dashi, eggs, soy sauce, and mirin. Suspended in this Japanese egg custard mixture are various ingredients such as chicken, kamaboko (fish cake), ginkgo nuts, mushrooms, shrimp, and even crabmeat.
Relying on ingredients like katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) and kombu (kelp), dashi harnesses the flavor of the sea, and is the main ingredient in chawanmushi. With its high concentration of dashi, chawanmushi falls somewhere in between a savory egg pudding and a soup. A nutritious and warming dish, it is a common appetizer that’s often served at sushi restaurants. Its simple ingredients and nutritional content also make it an ideal food to help recover from a cold.
Why Are Gingko Nuts Used in Chawanmushi?
Spreading their golden, fan-like leaves, the notoriously pungent ginkgo tree bears fruit every autumn. Its ginnan (ginkgo nuts), renowned for their medicinal properties, are then harvested—a common ingredient in traditional chawanmushi.
Ginkgo nuts have long been used in Chinese medicine to treat conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, kidney disorders, and more. This knowledge spread to Japan, and today the ginkgo nut is still used in Japanese cuisine, most often in chawanmushi. While ginnan doesn’t always make an appearance in the savory egg pudding, the addition of this seasonal ingredient is said to help prevent colds.
Besides its seasonal appeal and health benefits, there’s another reason why ginkgo nuts are used in chawanmushi: luck. It is said that eating foods with two ん or ン (the hiragana and katakana for “n”) in their names brings good fortune during the winter solstice in Japan. Ginnan is among these auspicious foods (others include kinkan キンカン kumquats and renkon レンコン lotus roots).
Are Ginkgo Nuts Poisonous?
Be mindful of consuming too many ginkgo nuts, as it is toxic in large quantities. Adults should avoid eating more than 10-20 ginkgo nuts per day, while children should be limited to 1-2 per day. In the recipe below, the one ginkgo nut per serving is harmless, and in fact, may have health benefits.
Gingko nuts contain essential nutrients like B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium, and protein. It is said to promote strong hair, nails, and skin; and aid in fatigue recovery. High in antioxidants such as flavonoids and terpenoids, ginkgo nuts also help improve blood circulation.
Sometimes ginkgo nuts have a slightly bitter flavor that’s not for everyone, so feel free to omit them in the recipe below for a milder taste.
For the dashi:
- 450g (approx. 2 cups) water
- 1-2 strips of kombu
- 30g (2 packed cups) katsuobushi
Note: For a quick and easy dashi substitute, dashi powder can be mixed with water. However, since dashi is the main flavor of chawanmushi, it is recommended to make it from scratch to enjoy its full complexity.
For the chawanmushi
- 2 large eggs (approx 110g)
- 330g dashi (made from scratch using the ingredients above)
- 1 ¼ tsp soy sauce
- 1 tsp mirin
- Generous pinch of salt
- 1 shiitake mushroom, fresh or dried
- 130g chicken thigh
- 30g kamaboko
- 4-8 boiled ginnan (ginkgo nuts) - optional
- Mitsuba - optional, for garnish
Makes 2-4 chawanmushi depending on the size of your cups.
Note: For a soft-textured chawanmushi, the ratio of egg to dashi is 1 to 3, while a firmer texture can be achieved with a ratio of 1 to 2.5. This recipe uses a 1-to-3 ratio, but feel free to adapt to your preference.
Make the Dashi
- Steep kombu in water for at least 30 minutes and up to overnight.
- In a saucepan, bring kombu and water up to a near-boil, skimming the foam from the water’s surface every so often.
- When the boiling point has been reached (after about 10 minutes), remove the kombu, add the katsuobushi flakes, and bring it back up to a boil.
- Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 seconds before cutting the heat.
- Let the katsuobushi steep for 10 minutes, off heat.
- Strain dashi through a fine-mesh sieve. This can be stored in a container in the fridge for up to five days.
Prepare the Chawanmushi Egg Custard
- Chop shiitake mushroom, naruto fish cakes, and chicken thigh into bite-size pieces. (If using dried shiitake, rehydrate it in just-boiled water and soak for 20 minutes. Drain and chop off the tough stem before slicing it into bite-sized pieces.)
- Add eggs to a mixing bowl, noting their weight. The ratio of egg to dashi for this recipe is 1 to 3 (e.g. 110g egg to 330g dashi). For a firmer texture, use a 1 to 2.5 ratio.
- To the eggs, add soy sauce and mirin and mix gently. Try not to incorporate too much air into the egg when mixing.
- To the egg mixture, add dashi little by little.
- Strain the mixture through a sieve for a smooth texture.
Assemble the Chawanmushi
- In your chawan (tea cups) or ramekins, add the chicken first, mushrooms, ginkgo nuts, and then top with kamaboko and mitsuba.
- Pour the strained egg mixtures into the cups, covering most of the ingredients but leaving the colorful add-ins like kamaboko and mitsuba peeking through.
- Remove any foam at the top of the cup with a spoon to ensure a smooth surface.
How to Steam Chawanmushi
- Chawanmushi can be cooked in a steaming basket above a pot of boiling water.
- If you don’t have a steamer, bring a pot or skillet of water (about 1-3 cm of water in depth) to a boil.
- Reduce the heat to low and place the covered cups in the pot. Chawan cups come with lids, but if you’re using a ramekin or a mug, feel free to cover it with aluminum foil.
- Cook gently for 20 minutes (if using chicken), or 15 minutes (if no meat is included).
- Turn off the heat and leave the chawanmushi to set for 5 minutes before removing from the pot.
- Serve warm.
Make this savory Japanese egg pudding as a hot appetizer in the chilly months, and enjoy the soothing, umami essence of dashi.
For more about the essential Japanese soup stock, book the Dashi Workshop and Katsuobushi Factory Tour in Makurazaki!