Chawanmushi: Indulging in the Savory Egg Custard!

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A bowl of chawanmushi with meat on top.

Chawanmushi (teacup steamed egg custard) is a popular Japanese dish and a typical appetizer at Japanese restaurants. It’s both delicious and versatile. Nowadays, it not only appears in kaiseki-ryori (Japanese haute cuisine), but people also enjoy it at home. It’s the perfect dish to serve guests and a culinary masterpiece combining simplicity and elegance. Keep reading to discover more about this tasty and umami one-of-a-kind dish!

What is chawanmushi?

Chawanmushi, or steamed egg custard, is a silky-smooth savory egg custard, delicately flavored Japanese food. It uses shiitake mushrooms, fish cakes, chicken, and shrimp in an egg. A mixture of beaten egg, dashi (Japanese stock), soy sauce, and salt is poured over these ingredients. Then the cups are covered and steamed. This method prevents overcooking while preserving natural flavors and nutrients.

A bowl of chawanmushi with eggs.
It’s a ubiquitous appetizer in traditional Japanese cuisine. Image via Shutterstock

It’s a perfect example of an elegant dish that uses relatively simple ingredients. Each dish portion is presented in a small, individual-lidded cup. It is as tasty as it looks, with an ivory color and lovely toppings.

Where did chawanmushi come from?

Chawanmushi has a long history. Originating from Nagasaki, this savory egg custard may be Japan’s best-kept secret. It started popping up over 300 years ago during the Edo period in shippoku (A culinary style influenced by Chinese cuisine) and being an ancient version of Asian fusion with Japanese, Chinese, and Western influences. 

The Nagasaki skyline in Japan.
Nagasaki is the home of chawanmushi. Image via Shutterstock

At that time, Japan was in self-imposed isolation and did not generally trade with foreign countries. But Nagasaki had exclusive trade with China and accommodated traders visiting the area. It is said that the remaining Chinese traders introduced table cuisine, particularly the steamed egg dish zhēng shuǐ dàn, which became the root of Japanese chawanmushi.

Later, Nobutake Sokichi, a feudal retainer from Iyo Matsuyama, visited Nagasaki, tasted the dish, and fell in love with it. In 1866, he opened Yossou, a restaurant specializing in chawanmushi, to spread his love for chawanmushi. Yossou is still in operation, thanks to the current seventh generation in Nagasaki over 150 years later, serving chawanmushi to the public.

What does it taste like?

You can expect a delicate yet complex flavor from a good chawanmushi cup. The seasonings attribute a rich umami taste, key to making a delicious custard. The flavor of the egg and the delicate dashi broth combined with the smooth texture creates an exquisite combination.

A cup of savory egg custard.
Chawanmushi uses eggs. Image via Shutterstock

The steamed custard is smooth & silky, while the sweet-savory meat and vegetables lend a contrasting mouthfeel to the dish. And there’s juice from the broth, which makes each bite utterly satisfying and surprising. 

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Chawanmushi Cups

At home, people often cook chawanmushi in a particular dish. The dish is teapot-shaped and uses a special type of Japanese ceramic. Sets with a lid prevent water droplets from mixing when steaming it. The lid also keeps the aroma of the ingredients from escaping.

The chawan, which is a teacup.
The traditional teacup is perfect for this dish. Image via Shutterstock

They come in various designs, from seasonal plants and animals to simple white. Chawanmushi cups are beautiful and vital, so they can stand high temperatures when steaming. Because of this, it’s a surprisingly helpful piece of Japanese tableware. It’s suitable for chawanmushi and as a cup for desserts or soups! But for those outside of Japan, getting that unique pottery just for this savory egg custard is impossible. So instead, you can use ramekins or small mugs covered with aluminum foil.

Is it similar to pudding?

Egg custard pudding is made from egg yolks and milk or cream. The milk or cream is heated with egg yolks until thickened. Sometimes add sugar, vanilla, chocolate, or lemon for taste. Custards can also be a sauce, the base of a dish, or a dessert.

A bowl of sweet, custard pudding.
Egg custard pudding and chawanmushi and very similar. Image via Shutterstock

Many people from all over the world enjoy this creamy dish in many different forms. But the one-of-a-kind dish from Japan takes the cake in terms of standing out! Unlike other egg custard, chawanmushi is not sweet but has a savory flavor packed with umami.

How can I enjoy chawanmushi?

Chawanmushi is usually an appetizer or side dish. People can enjoy it hot, warm, or cold and garnished with carrot shavings, parsley, or even more seafood. Since the custard is delicate, it’s one of the few Japanese dishes people eat with a spoon.

It has gained immense popularity for its delicate flavors and velvety texture. Steeped in history and culinary finesse, this savory steamed egg custard has become a sought-after delight for food enthusiasts. The custard-like texture, coupled with the umami-rich flavors, makes chawanmushi a delight for the eyes and the palate. Have you tried chawanmushi before? Would you like to try it? Let us know in the comments below!

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