Practice makes perfect. For more than 15 years, Don Ojiri of Halawa repeatedly made the Japanese savory custard called chawan mushi, until it became known as his signature dish.
His recipe brings together the best of the land – mushrooms, chicken and fresh eggs — with that of the sea – broth from fish and seaweed and chunks of shrimp — to create a memorable dish.
The soft, silky custard is spectacular, and each spoonful of shrimp, chicken or shiitake mushroom is like finding a wonderful floating treasure. Clearly, Ojiri’s version is a step or two above the kind served at fast-food sushi restaurants.
Literally translated, “chawan mushi” means “teacup steamed.” The dish is indeed served in individual Japanese teacups or teacup-size bowls, with lids, making for an outstanding presentation. And in the Japanese style of service, the patterns of the cups need not match.
Chawan mushi is a satisfying appetizer even beginning cooks can successfully deliver, as each step is simple, although there are many.
Ojiri, 72, a retired general manager of Obun Hawaii, shares lessons he learned after many years of practice and making mistakes.
He experimented with his recipe until he had mastered the taste of each ingredient and the texture of the egg custard just the way he likes it: light yet creamy.
First thing to know: He seasons the eggs with three types of packaged dashi (soup stock), seaweed, iriko (dried baby anchovies) and hondashi. The dashi powder must first be dissolved in boiling water; cold water won’t do the job. Cool this broth before adding it to the scrambled eggs to achieve the smooth consistency that is the trademark of good chawan mushi.
Like a professional chef, Ojiri adds layers of flavors by seasoning each step of the way. Medium shrimp (16-20 pieces per pound) are quickly simmered in sake and salt with shells left on, barely cooked in a single layer in a saucepan. After cooling, he peels and cuts them into bite-size pieces. Cooking the shrimp shell-on results in better flavor, he says.
Chunks of chicken breast are also seasoned with sake and salt, plus ground white pepper.
“Oyoso,” he said. “It’s an old Japanese word that means approximate, so season to your taste.”
As for the eggs, Ojiri insists on using local. He ever-so-slightly scrambles them with a manual hand mixer. He cautions not to over-mix, which could ruin the silkiness of the custard. After the eggs are combined with the dashi liquid and other ingredients, the mixture is strained to eliminate hard parts of the whites that could spoil the perfect custard texture.
From there, ingredients are assembled, and the dish is cooked using a two-part steaming method, ensuring tender pieces of chicken and delicately cooked shrimp.
The process starts with the seasoned chicken pieces being placed in the teacups, then steamed in the egg mixture that fills two-thirds of the cup. After 20 minutes, shrimp, mushrooms and more egg mixture are added to the cups, followed by a second round of steaming.
It’s important that the teacups are covered — either with lids or tightly with foil — to prevent steam from entering the dish.
Upon serving, Ojiri garnishes the cups with sprigs of young greens from his garden. Good items to use: kaiware (radish sprouts) or minced green onions.
Chawan mushi is one of the few Japanese dishes to be served with a spoon, as chopsticks just wouldn’t be useful. Ojiri presents his custard with beautiful, dainty bamboo spoons.
Upon opening the lid of the teacup, the scent of mushrooms and savory broth is heavenly. It is hard to decide which is better, the perfect, light texture of the flavored custard or the morsels suspended in it. Although some enjoy this dish cold or at room temperature, Ojiri prefers it served hot.
When he cooks chawan mushi for his family — wife Pat, son and daughter Donn and Erin, son-in-law Wade Tokoro (yes, the well-known surfboard shaper) and granddaughter Jady — he makes a full recipe of 12 cups.
“They gobble it up,” he said. “I’m lucky if there is one or two left over.”
In that rare case, he says, it’s fine the next day warmed up in a microwave.
DON OJIRI’S CHAWAN MUSHI (SAVORY STEAMED CUSTARD)
1 packet EACH hondashi, iriko-based dashi and seaweed-based dashi
6 cups boiling water
12 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked at least 1 hour
6 large eggs, local preferred
2 teaspoons EACH salt, sake and mirin (Japanese sweet cooking rice wine)
1 teaspoon soy sauce
12 gingko nuts, peeled (optional)
12 sprigs green vegetable such as radish sprouts, for garnish
10 to 12 medium shell-on shrimp, deveined
3 tablespoons sake
1 teaspoon salt
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sake
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
At least 2 hours prior to cooking, in large bowl, dissolve dashi in boiling water. Cool to room temperature.
Slice shiitake, removing stems and cutting into quarters. Set aside.
To prepare shrimp: In large saucepan, simmer shrimp with sake and salt until pink, about 3 minutes. Cool, then peel and cut into bite-size pieces. Set aside.
To prepare chicken: Slice into bite-size pieces. Season with salt, sake and white pepper. Set aside.
In bowl, mix eggs gently. Add dashi liquid, then salt, sake, mirin and soy sauce. Strain into another bowl, discarding any thick parts of egg caught in the strainer.
Equally distribute chicken among 12 teacups. Add gingko nut if using. Fill with egg mixture until 2/3 full. Cover each cup with lid or seal with foil and steam over medium heat for 20 minutes.
Using a chopstick, check whether custard has set. If not, steam a few more minutes.
Squeeze excess liquid from mushrooms. Open lids and add shrimp and mushrooms equally to cups. Add remaining egg mixture, cover cups and steam 10 minutes.
Test for doneness. Garnish each cup with green sprig and serve, covered, immediately. Makes 12 teacups.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: (not including gingko nut): 80 calories, 3 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 115 mg cholesterol, greater than 75 mg sodium, 4 g carbohydrate, no fiber, 1 g sugar, 8 g protein