Author Victoria Abbott Riccardi wasn't finding fulfilment in her advertising career so she left New York and went to Kyoto to study kaiseki--the precise, delicate ritual of cooking the food that accompanies the Japanese tea ceremony. Her year in Japan teaches her about the culture, the food, and the symbolism involved in every step of the preparation of each small dish. Along the way she learns about the history and people of Japan. Abbott Riccardi writes in a very descriptive manner that transported me back to the time I spent there. The book offers a glimpse of home life in Japan and makes one want to drop everything and follow her path. (Although I lack the precision, grace, patience and ability to be a successful kaiseki chef.) ;-)
For my Cook the Books dish I wanted to make one of my favorites, Chawan Mushi, a savory steamed egg custard. I first had this dish in a small onsen (hot springs resort or inn) in Hakone, Japan. Every dish we were served with our dinner and again with our breakfast the next day was beautifully presented in delicate bowls, plates, and even in a tiny wooden birdcage. Having occasional textural issues with my food, I first looked upon the slightly quivering egg custard suspiciously, but taking a bite and feeling the silky smooth texture on my tongue, I was pleasantly surprised. Breaking through the custard I found little bites of shrimp and vegetables inside, like little treasures. I was hooked. It is a simple dish but one I continue to look for on the menu of Japanese restaurants and one I have always meant to try making it at home but have never got around to it.
Abbott-Riccardi mentions chawan mushi in "Untangling My Chopsticks" (which coincidentally she also enjoyed in an onsen in the book), saying "Pale yellow chawan-mushi also appeared in a lidded glass custard cup. With a tiny wooden spoon we scooped up the ethereal egg and dashi custard cradling chunks of shrimp, sweet lily buds, and waxy-green ginkgo nuts." She includes a recipe for it in the book as well that sounds delicious, but I wanted to try a version I had tagged to make in a cookbook that a friend gave me that has been sitting on the shelf, "Harumi's Japanese Home Cooking: Simple, Elegant Recipes for Contemporary Tastes" by Harumi Kurihara. Harumi has been called "the Japanese Martha Stewart" and has her own homemaking empire in Japan. Her version is not traditional but it sounded both simple and delicious with its mushrooms and flavorful sauce.
Harumi says,"This is my own simple version of the traditional Japanese savory steamed egg custard--chawan mushi. Usually small pieces of chicken, shrimp and vegetables are added, too, but here I use only nameko mushrooms. Also, although not traditional, I think this sauce really compliments the chawan mushi."
Kinoko no Chawan Mushi (Savory Steamed Egg Custards with Mushrooms)
"Harumi's Japanese Home Cooking" by Harumi Kurihara
For the savory teamed egg custards:
1 tsp Chinese soup paste or mix of chicken and beef stock
3/4 cup hot water
1 1/3 cups nameko, enoki or button mushrooms, chopped
1/2 cup chopped spring onions or chives to garnish
For the sauce:
a little granulated chicken stock powder
2 Tbsp hot water
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1/2 Tbsp rice vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
a little chili oil (la-yu)--to taste
To make the custards: In a bowl, dissolve the Chinese soup paste in the hot water and leave for a few minutes until cool. In another bowl beat the eggs, add the stock, then mix well and strain through a sieve to remove any stringy bits.
Divide the mushrooms between 4 small cups and pour the egg stock on top.
To steam: In a steamer bring some water to a boil. Turn down the heat and place the dishes in the steamer. Cover with a tea towel and then with the lid, and steam for 12-15 minutes until cooked. The custard should be firm to the touch.
Make the sauce by dissolving the chicken stock powder in the hot water, then mix in the other ingredients until blended.
When the custards are ready, remove from the steamer and pour a little of the sauce onto each one. Garnish liberally with the spring onions or chives. Serve piping hot and eat with a spoon.
Menu Planning Note: Chawan mushi is great as a small side dish. It works well with all Japanese dishes, but goes particularly with strong flavored recipes.
Notes/Results: Silky, creamy, savory and delicious. The sauce works well on the custards but isn't really necessary--they have enough flavor on their own. I used a combination of nameko and enoki mushrooms and used a vegetarian stock base for both the custards and the sauce. I steamed the custards in some small teacups in my Dutch oven on a steamer rack. So easy that I don't know why I haven't been making them before. I will make these again, trying different combinations of ingredients.
"Untangling My Chopsticks" was a fun re-read for me and a well-written memoir for foodies and those with an interest in International travel and culture. Thanks to Rachel for a great pick. Rachel will be rounding up all of the entries on the Cook The Books site after the end of the month, so stop by and check out what dishes everyone was inspired to make.
Love foodie books? Love cooking? Come join us at Cook the Books. The deadline for this selection is this Friday, January 28. I am hosting our February-March book and taking us tropical with "An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude" by Amy Vanderhoof. (Deadline is Friday, March 25). You can get all the CTB details here.
I am also sending my little Chawan Mushi to the Hearth 'n Soul Blog Hop where you will find lots of delicious food cooked from the heart.