At its finest hour, the Japanese food served at the old inns and tea houses of Kyoto is so elegant and delicate that it almost becomes homeopathic. Like the doctor who follows the homeopathic principle — the less medicine prescribed, the better the results — chefs in the well-worn kitchens of the old imperial city use as little seasoning as possible to achieve results unmatched by the common stalls and stand-up eateries.

As a young cook in Japanese kitchens, I had to struggle with my desire to beef up the soup, to infuse the marinade with too much flavor and to generally kick the sauce up a notch. Classic Japanese food doesn’t need to be “kicked up.” It does need, however, to be prepared carefully and deliberately. When this is accomplished, the diner will feel uplifted without being overwhelmed.

Staying the hand, where the use of soy sauce is concerned, will yield satisfying results only if the entire meal observes the same rule. It takes only one dish overloaded with spice to upset the entire rhythm of an otherwise impressive meal. Letting the palate respond to subtle stimulation is the key to good cooking.

Chawan mushi is a perfect example of this concept. Prepared with minimal seasoning, it is the texture and distinctive flavors of the garnishes that make this dish shine. Served at most sushi restaurants as well as in more expensive fine-dining establishments, chawan mushi is so ubiquitous — like flan in a Mexican restaurant — that you will certainly encounter a wide range of quality.

Grated yuzu adds the final touch to chawamushi.

Of course, the best way to ensure that you get consistent results every time is to make it yourself.

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Chawan Mushi

This classic preparation, a steamed dish — chawan means dish, musu means to steam — is technically considered a soup because of the high ratio of dashi to eggs. Often translated as a “savory custard” or “savory cup,” chawan mushi is rarely understood until it is eaten at least once in a reputable restaurant. The “savory” here does not mean “delicious”; it means “not sweet.”

The general ratio of dashi to eggs ranges from between 140 ml and 160 ml of dashi per egg. Though just-out-of-the-steamer piping hot chawan mushi may be enjoyed year-round, it is often served chilled in the summertime, with a higher ratio of dashi used — up to 170 ml per egg. If it is being served chilled, you will want to add the salt outlined in the recipe. Often, when served cold, a few tablespoons of chilled, seasoned dashi are spooned over the top of the custard.

You may fill the custard with any garnish you like — one of my favorites is fresh sweet corn with flavorful summer oysters, chilled, in the dog days of August — but the classic garnishes are simple. The most common addition, chicken, is marinated in soy sauce briefly (this process is called mura aria — from arau, to wash and murasaki, purple, which is also the slang for purplish dark soy sauce). Next is anago (conger eel), grilled and basted with sweet sauce — buy one whole grilled anago and freeze the unused portion, it keeps well if it is wrapped properly. Any white fish may be cut into small pieces and then blanched — place the fish pieces in a colander and pour boiling water over them to blanch — before cooling and using as a garnish. Ginkgo nuts, now in season, must be cracked open and soaked overnight in salt water, before partially cooking them by quickly boiling or deep-frying. Finally, a few leaves of mitsuba (trefoil), or trimmings of the stem, make an aromatic addition.

Just before serving, brush finely grated yuzu citron, for that wonderfully delicate aroma, on top of the chawan mushi.

4 large eggs
600 ml dashi or light stock, chilled
1 Tusukuchi shoyu (light soy sauce)
1 tablespoon mirin
1/2 teaspoon salt (only if serving chilled)
4 2×2 cm pieces of chicken, uncooked
4 2-cm pieces of anago, grilled
4 2×2 cm pieces of any white fish, blanched
8 ginkgo nuts, blanched
4 sprigs mitsuba (trefoil) leaves
grated yuzu citron

1) In a large nonreactive bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk until well scrambled.

2) Add the chilled stock, the soy sauce, the mirin, and if the chawan mushi is being served cold, the salt. Strain through a fine sieve and set aside. The custard may be mixed the day before.

3) Prepare the garnishes.

4) Marinate the chicken briefly in dark soy sauce. Cut the anago to size. Blanch and cool the white fish. Partially cook the ginkgo nuts.

5) Fill all four lidded cups with one piece each of chicken, eel and white fish, and two ginkgo nuts. Sprinkle mitsuba leaves on top of the garnishes in each cup.

6) Ladle 150 ml of the egg/dashi mixture into each cup. Cover and seal each cup carefully with aluminum foil to prevent the steam from making the custard soggy.

7) Place the cups in a steamer and steam on high for 8-10 minutes, checking whether it’s done after 8 minutes. To determine if the dish is done, break the surface with a toothpick. If the custard cuts cleanly and a clear stock is visible, the dish is done.

8) Remove from steamer, take off the foil and brush grated yuzu on top of the cups. Cover and serve.

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