What makes a great chawanmushi? Using even better dashi

by Makiko Itoh

Contributing Writer

The clear, umami-packed stock called dashi is the foundation of washoku, traditional Japanese cuisine. While stocks made by simmering various umami-rich ingredients are important in many cuisines, it’s hard to think of another where it plays as indispensable a role as it does in washoku.

One reason why dashi has become so ubiquitous is that methods for extracting it from easily stored ingredients were invented several hundred years ago. Long before the discovery of convenient glutamate packed concentrates, cubes and powders, Japanese cooks came up with ways of drying certain ingredients from which umami could be quickly and conveniently extracted. These dried ingredients are still used today, by home cooks and pros alike.

The earliest written record of the word “dashi” appears in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), where it meant a kind of sauce used on white fish. There are even earlier mentions (dating back as far as the sixth century) of making stock by simmering fish or animal bones and vegetables, but these were not known as dashi. In the Muromachi Period (1392-1573), recipe books belonging to the Okusa-ryu (Okusa school) of culinary arts, which still exists today, are believed to contain the first record of using katsuobushi to make a broth, in a recipe for stewed swan. Katsuobushi is made by salting, drying and fermenting bonito fish, each step of the process designed to maximize the bonito’s umami as well as allowing it to be preserved and stored in those pre-refrigeration days.

Japanese dashi as we know it today was developed and refined in the Edo Period (1603-1868). Two distinct types of dashi emerged: one based on dried katsuobushi, and the other based on dried seaweed. The latter is very delicately flavored, and was (and still is) preferred in the Kansai region centered around Kyoto and Osaka.

On the other hand, the stronger flavored dashi extracted from katsuobushi was preferred in the Edo (current Tokyo) region. The most popular type of dashi now is made by combining a vegetable ingredient, such as konbu, with an animal ingredient, such as katsuobushi, or niboshi (small dried fish, the most common of which is baby sardines). Vegetable sources such as konbu are rich in L-glutamate, while animal sources like katsuobushi or niboshi are rich in disodium inosinate. When both are combined, the dashi has a well rounded flavor that is very pleasant on the palate.

These days, you can buy instant dashi granules, which can be easily dissolved in liquid or just added on its own for a shot of umami. There’s also monosodium glutamate (better known as MSG) if you want a pure shot of the glutamates.

But it’s really not that hard to make dashi from the original dried ingredients, and I really think the end product when made fresh tastes so much better. Use ichiban (first-extraction) dashi for dishes like the chawanmushi where the taste of the dashi is the primary flavor of the savory egg custard, and niban (second-extraction) dashi — made from the same ingredients used for ichiban dashi but simmered again — for dishes that have lots of other flavors such as nimono (stews).

Chawanmushi with shrimp, shiitake and mitsuba

For the ichiban dashi (makes 1 liter):

• 1 liter cold water

• 10 grams dried konbu (a piece about 20 cm long), preferably ma-konbu or rishiri konbu

• 10 grams (a large handful) thinly shaved katsuobushi (bonito flakes)

Put the konbu and cold water in a pan. Leave to soak for at least 30 minutes.

Place the pan over medium heat. When the water is bubbling gently but before it coming to a full rolling boil, put the bonito flakes in and turn the heat off.

Wait until the bonito flakes have sunk to the bottom of the pan. Strain through a fine mesh sieve.

For the chawanmushi (serves one):

• 30 grams boneless chicken breast

• 1-2 medium shrimp

• 1-2 shiitake mushrooms, stems removed

• 4-5 mitsuba leaves

• 1 medium-sized egg

• 75 ml ichiban dashi

• 1 teaspoon usukuchi (light colored soy sauce).

Wrap the lid of the steamer with a large kitchen towel so condensation won’t drip onto the custard. Start boiling the water in the steamer. Line up the custard cups next to the steamer.

Remove any sinew from the chicken and cut into 1 cm pieces. Shell and clean the shrimp. Put the chicken and shrimp in a bowl, and pour some boiling water over them. Drain immediately and set aside.

Slice the shiitake mushrooms in half if they are large. Beat the eggs gently. Mix in the dashi and soy sauce. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve.

Distribute the chicken, shiitake mushrooms, shrimp and mitsuba leaves evenly in the custard cups. Gently pour the egg liquid into each cup.

When the water in the steamer is boiling, put the custard cups in the steamer and close the lid.

Turn the heat down to low, slide the lid to the side so that it’s slightly open, and steam for 25 to 30 minutes until the custard is set. Serve immediately.

Try other additions to the custard such as kamaboko fish cake, cooked vegetables and boiled ginkgo nuts. Avoid using maitake mushrooms, which contain a substance that prevents the egg from setting.