zheng shui dan

Whether I’m making chawanmushi (茶碗蒸しwhich broadly means ‘steamed in a teacup’ but specifically refers to Japanese steamed savoury custard), zheng shui dan (蒸水蛋 or steamed eggs), egg tofu or a savoury custard of my own invention, my base ratio for the custard ingredients is 1 egg to 100ml liquid. With this master recipe, the custard consistently retains a meltingly delicate quiver that possibly accounts for its comforting, nursery-food like qualities. And it takes just 20 minutes to steam.

The first zheng shui dan recipe (3 eggs to 450ml stock) I used (back in university) was from the first Chinese cookbook I had ever bought, Kenneth Lo’s Classic Chinese Cuisine. It served me well (it is the basis for my own minced pork and steamed custard recipe) and I probably used it for a good decade before I tried Shizuo Tsuji and Koichiro Hata’s chawanmushi recipe in Practical Japanese Cooking (3 eggs to 600ml stock), which became my go-to choice when I made chawanmushi. The high stock to egg ratio gives you a sexily soft, barely set texture. But both recipes would always take what felt like an interminable length of time (45 minutes or more) to cook—yes, even when the chawanmushi was steamed in individual cups. This made them dishes that couldn’t be thrown together after a workday unless we wanted to eat at 9pm. It was only when I recently adapted a recipe for spinach tofu from New Chinese Cuisine, the TungLok Group’s cookbook which I’d once used with great success for a Chinese new year reunion dinner menu, that I realised how the egg to liquid ratio could be appropriated for a range of savoury custards.

Toddler friendly savoury custard

I’ve been using this savoury custard master recipe regularly because we’ve discovered that savoury custard is one of the dishes that appeals to my 18 month old son T when he’s feeling under the weather. It’s clearly a comfort food for him. I guess he’s truly a chip off the old block. CH is happy to eat savoury custard filled with minced pork studded with salted duck egg yolks for dinner once a week!

For T, I often use homemade soymilk (or in a pinch, unsweetened soymilk from Medi-ya where it is made fresh daily) as the base liquid and add finely chopped spinach or other leafy green, finely diced vegetables (carrots or pumpkin for some sweetness) and diced fish or minced pork or chicken. He loves it served with rice. Alternatively, when we make chawanmushi or Chinese steamed eggs for the family, we simply adjust the seasoning and fillings in his portion to suit his preferences.

Fish and spinach savoury custard

For chawanmushi, I use homemade dashi seasoned with mirin, usukuchi (light soy sauce) and salt as the base liquid and fill each bowl with bite-size pieces of blanched prawns, marinated cubes of chicken thigh, ginkgo nuts or whatever else I happen to have that is appropriate (the danger merely lies in overdoing it); for Chinese steamed eggs, I use seasoned homemade chicken stock and usually fill each bowl with CH’s favourite soy sauce and sesame oil marinated minced pork stir-fried with shallots and garlic plus a chunk of salted duck egg yolk. To make the spinach tofu that is served at many Chinese restaurants here in Singapore, I just use soymilk seasoned to taste and add finely chopped spinach.

This is a dish you can easily dress-up or down. One of my favourite menus is chicken rice paired with plain Chinese steamed egg that has been carefully seasoned with just soy sauce and sesame oil (and when I don’t have the time to cook it, I go to Sin Swee Kee for my fix. They serve theirs with century egg and salted duck egg). At the other end of the spectrum, we glammed it up for a Chinese New Year reunion meal and topped it with slices of abalone and a rich, heavily reduced stock .


About Su-Lyn Tan

Su-Lyn is Aun's better half and for many years, the secret Editor behind this blog known to readers simply as S. Su-Lyn is an obsessive cook and critical eater whose two favourite pastimes are spending time with her three kids and spending time in the kitchen. She looks forward to combining the two in the years to come.


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7 September 2012


Thanks for sharing this. I grew up eating the egg custard with minced pork too! I use a wok to steam my food as i don’t have a steam oven. My glass bowl does not have its own cover and I would rather not use aluminium foil or cling wrap to cover it for health reasons. If I were to use another plate to cover it, would that affect the steaming time? Btw, am considering buying one of those Japanese stand alone steam ovens. What do you think of those? Would appreciate your suggestions. Thanks!

Hi charsiew
You’re most welcome. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with steaming this the traditional way in a wok. You could use another plate to cover the dish, or cover the inside of the lid of your wok with a cloth. I actually used to just steam it uncovered when I used the wok for steaming. Just that you will need to adjust the steaming time. You may want to use my previous steamed custard recipe steaming time as a reference.
I’m afraid I’ve not had the chance to try a Japanese standalone steam oven, so I can’t really comment on them. What I would look for in a steam oven is a good sized cavity that can comfortably take a whole fish and anything else large-ish that you may want to steam. A good-sized capacity for water storage is useful. I sometimes steam homemade chicken essence and that takes 3 hours. Wouldn’t want to have to top up the water every 30minutes for that! I would also prefer that the steam is produced outside the cavity and introduced into it so that only steam (and not the heat generated by the hot plate you sometimes find inside the cavity) is doing the cooking inside the steam oven. But if you don’t steam food a whole lot, the traditional wok method is the perfect option.

Hi Cynthia and Chester
The glass container is actually the Wagenfeld Egg Coddler by Jenaer Glas from Zwiesel. They have three sizes. This is the middle one. They’re great for baked eggs, souffles, small terrines. The small one is quite nice for verrines as well. I’ve lusted after these Bauhaus classics for a long time and was thrilled to recently find them at 50% off at the Zwiesel store in Singapore. They were still an investment, but I reckon they’ll last me a lifetime and then some.

I’m new to your blog and LOVE it!!! I’m making my way through your archives a page at a time. Your recipe for Steamed Savoury Custard is divine. Is there any way you could share the source for the lidded custard cups that you used? They are unique and I would love to serve my custard in them. Thank you.

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