04 Apr So much of a love
I sat at the long banquet table in the dining room of the house H grew up in. The large drafty structure was built from recycled beams and had the feel of a farmhouse of old. Kuniko sat across from me choosing from a pile of photo albums. This was how we passed those mornings, flipping through the pages as she introduced me to the family through a sequence of old photographs.
It was my first trip to Japan and not 48 hours in, H had gone to Tokyo for a few days and left me in Kuniko’s care. We shyly communicated through gestures and awkward attempts at each other’s language. Breakfasts were quiet, just the two of us with the stack of photo albums. Others joined us at lunch and dinner. Watching closely, I learned how to eat in Japan. I followed the order of things, observed the etiquette, mimicked the style and started cataloguing a series of unusual flavors.
Each meal ended with a bowl of sparkling white rice, pickled vegetables and a variety of pairings housed in a small blue and white ceramic container with three stacking compartments. The upper compartment held a swarm of tiny dried fish that it would take me years to learn to love. The next level down housed a few pickled plums, so salty and sour that one bite was more than plenty. But there, at the bottom… I’ve never before or since been quite so smitten with a pure spice. Black as black, leaves preserved in soy, the most unusual, intense, divine spice I had ever encountered. It tingled and numbed the tongue delightfully.
“What’s your favorite food in Japan?” It’s an easy question to ask. But it’s a hard question to answer, really. I could mention my favorite place to eat sushi. Or how I love sautéed renkon dressed in white miso and black sesame… but really only when Kuniko makes it. Or H’s refreshing blanched chrysanthemum and persimmon salad. So much of a love for a dish lies not only in the food itself, but in how and by whom it’s prepared.
So I usually fall into answering with a list of universally loved flavors, sansho being the first and foremost. The new leaves sprout about this time of year. When they are young and small, we float them in soups, veil them in temarizushi and toss handfuls in with bamboo shoots. The larger leaves will later be preserved in soy and served with rice as I first encountered them. The berries are washed and frozen for use throughout the year to come.
Chawanmushi is essentially a savory egg custard, served warm. It is silken and simple, flavored only by stock, soy and sake. Eggs, available year round, are an affable bunch and happily play a supporting role to the flashier highlights of any season. The pale yellow sets off a colorful, vibrant garnish beautifully. The fist leaves of sansho are perfect. The flavor is potent and just a couple of sprigs go a long way.
Chawanmushi is a wonderfully flexible dish. A small, simple portion of plain egg and a garnish makes a great appetizer or transitional course in a long meal. Larger portions, fortified with bits of blanched vegetables, make for a more substantial offering.
recipe by Kuniko
Eggs (depending on size, 1 egg will make 2-3 small portions or 1/2-1 larger portion)
Vegetable or fish stock
Sake or white wine
Soy and salt
Blanched vegetables cut small (optional)
A garnish – anything fresh, beautiful and in season
Prepare a steamer that will fit all of the serving vessels
Beat eggs lightly and measure
Add 2.5 times that amount of stock
Add a splash of soy, a splash of sake or white wine, and finish with salt to taste
Strain the mixture and pour into desired chosen serving vessels
Add a few of the blanched vegetables to each if desired
Boil the water in the steamer, set all of the custard filled dishes in and turn the heat down low for a very mild boil
Cover with a lid but leave the lid slightly ajar for steam to escape
Steam until the custard is just set (check with a toothpick or by jiggling a bit…)
Remove, top with garnish and serve hot