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All Steamed Up - Springtime Mushimono - April Newsletter 2002


Japanese steamed food, or mushimono, first appeared in the Heian Period (794-1185 AD). Even after more than 800 years, cooking with steam is still an important process in the Japanese kitchen today.

The central principle of Japanese cooking is simple: the natural flavor of the food must be preserved. The cooking process plays a particularly important role in flavor preservation. Steam cooks food quickly, keeping mushimono juicy and succulent as it cooks in warm, wet air. Since steam cooking is a short process that keeps food moist, it keeps the food's original flavors intact.

Steaming became popular not only for its flavor-retaining properties, but for its economic practicality. Only a small amount of heat is needed to keep it going, so steaming food was a good way to conserve fuel. Steaming is also a relatively simple way of cooking. To steam food skillfully, even inexperienced chefs need little more than a timer and the right steaming equipment.

A standard Japanese steamer resembles a double boiler made of stackable aluminum trays. The bottom tray holds the water used to steam the food, and one or more trays stacked on top have holes in the bottom to let steam in. To steam food, simply put your food on a heatproof plate, then place the plate in a steaming tray. Glazed ceramic plates and casseroles work well for this. Hot steam causes unglazed ceramic, glass, and Pyrex glass to crack and break, so be sure your dish is heatproof before placing it in a steamer.

The high temperature of the steam also makes removing a plate from the depths of a metal steamer tricky. You may want to make a sling to aid removal: before cooking, lay a long, sturdy strip of the cloth across the open steamer, place the plate of food on top, and put the lid on the steamer. The ends of the cloth should be poking out from under the lid. When you're done cooking, hold both ends of the sling and carefully lift upwards to pull out the dish. If this all sounds a bit too complicated, rest assured that a Chinese-style bamboo steamer in a stock pot will steam your food just as effectively.

Now all you need is steam! First, put a couple of inches of water in the water pan. Over very high heat, bring the water to a rolling boil, then reduce the heat and cool the water to a steady simmer-just hot enough to produce steam, but not so hot that the water bubbles. Once you have a pot full of steam, you're ready to add your plate and sling to the steamer. Cover it up, and your food will bathe continuously in a gentle, hot mist that keeps your meal moist, tender, and tasty.

And steam-cooking benefits more that your taste buds. Cooking with steam over low heat is still a great way to conserve energy and keep your power bill low. Using water instead of oil to cook your food is a great way to cut fat and calories out of your diet, and since it keeps your food hydrated, it keeps you hydrated as well. Steaming to preserve the "naturalness" of your food is more than an aesthetic taste concern, too-steaming and other unobtrusive cooking methods help your food retain vitamins and minerals.

Many foods steam well-most vegetables, like snow peas, turnips, and carrots are good for steaming. Even steamed mushrooms retain some of their firmness. Fish and shellfish steam quickly, and steamed chicken is a Japanese favorite. Some versions call for steaming lightly marinated chicken and serving it with a thin lemon and soy sauce dressing. In others, chicken broth produced during the steaming process is used to make a creamy sesame seed dressing. Rolled chicken, chicken-stuffed cabbage-the variations are endless. Of course, steam-cooking chicken is not a strictly Japanese custom, but many mushimono recipes have an unmistakably Japanese influence.

Shiroma no soba mushi, one popular dish, is a no-bake fish casserole. The cook arranges strips of fish casserole and steams them for just a few minutes. Meanwhile, tender soba-buckwheat noodles-boil in a nearby pot. The steamed fish is heaped with boiled soba, splashed with sweetened dashi-a kelp broth-and steamed once more. The result is a moist, delicate noodle dish. The fresh sea scent is particularly uplifting on days when you can't make it out to the beach.

Kamaboko, or fish cake, is a popular home-cooked item that's easy to make. Fish, egg whites, and seasonings are puréed together, rolled in cheesecloth, and steamed to make a healthy seafood sausage. If the process sounds a little intimidating, you'll be pleased to know it's available at most Asian grocery stores. A versatile food, it's used fried, boiled, and grilled, in soups, noodle dishes, appetizers, and picnic fare. Kamaboko is also a popular ingredient in other Asian cuisines, and works equally well in Chinese stir-fries and Vietnamese soups.

Dobin mushi is an elegant dish served in small earthenware teapots, or dobin. The dobin are filled with shrimp, mushrooms, gingko nuts, and dashi before being steamed. Once removed from the heat, the spout of each dobin is stuffed with pine needles. Steam from the teapot absorbs the fragrance of the pine needles, filling the air with an invigorating, meal-enhancing aroma.

Steaming isn't restricted to main dish meals-sweets can be steamed, too. Historically, ordinary Japanese kitchens did not have ovens, so most home-cooked sweets had to be steamed. Steamed sweets are usually dough-based dumplings, like manju: a tasty dumpling filled with sweetened mashed beans. A sweet leavened dough is kneaded to an elastic consistency, cut into circles, and wrapped around a paste of sugar and red azuki beans.

One of the most popular steamed dishes is a distinctly Japanese egg dish cooked in individual cups that double as serving bowls. Called chawan mushi, the name literally means "steamed tea bowls." Beaten eggs are blended with dashi and mirin, poured into bowls with assorted vegetables and meats. The egg jells into a soft, velvety solid as it steams, so chawan mushi is technically a custard. However, it tastes much better as a side dish or snack than as a dessert. Served as a soup, it is the only Japanese food traditionally eaten with a spoon.

Here at Mrs. Lin's kitchen, we've come up with an easy-to-follow chawan mushi recipe that's sure to please:

Mrs. Lin's Easy Chawan Mushi
(Serves three)

2 eggs
1 can of 14-1/2 oz. of low-sodium chicken broth or vegetable broth

Chawan mushi is easy to customize. Just choose a few of the ingredients listed below (or others not listed), drop them in the egg mixture, and steam away! You're only limited by your imagination.

shiitake mushrooms
sliced button mushrooms
sliced or grated turnip
firm tofu, cubed
gingko nuts
water chestnuts
bamboo shoot, cubed
sliced kamaboko
uncooked chicken, diced
uncooked shrimp, shelled and veined
blanched snow peas (add these in the last minute of cooking)

Whisk the eggs and broth together. Let stand for a minute and strain through fine mesh. Put any add-ons in into chawan mushi cups or small bowls, filling each bowl less than 1/3 full. Cover with enough egg mixture to fill each bowl about 7/8 full. After bringing the water to a full boil, place cups in steamer and steam 1 to 2 minutes over high heat. Turn the heat to low and steam for about 15 more minutes. To test for doneness, poke each custard with a toothpick or bamboo skewer. If no liquid oozes out, your chawan mushi is done. An electric rice cooker can also be used for this dish. Add 2 cups of water to the rice pan, bring to a boil, and steam about 10 minutes. Any condensation that drips onto the food while cooking may dilute the flavor and ruin the delicate texture of the custard. To solve this problem, stretch a piece of absorbent cloth over the steamer before putting the lid on top.

Most of these ingredients and supplies are readily available at Asian specialty stores, and even at some grocery stores. But if you're in need of a steamer or a pot, mirin or mushrooms, or even chawan mushi cups, Mrs. Lin's kitchen can help, too. We have just about everything you need to move your cooking and your kitchen full steam ahead!


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