Custard is treated with special respect in South China. Sweet or savory, steamed or baked, simple or fancy: This is the place where eggs ascend to culinary heaven. I don’t know what it is about that place and chicken ova, but the Cantonese have a knack for bringing out the best in one of the most basic of foods.
Take this dish, for example. On the surface it looks, I admit, rather boring. This is little more than eggs mixed with broth and steamed. It is then cut into squares and fried, and a sauce is dumped on top. I know. Yawn.
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But whenever I prepare this dish for guests, it completely disappears, no matter how many times I multiply the recipe. Not only that, but if I have to leave the table before the dish reaches my place, I won’t get a taste. I will see lots of happy faces when I return, but that’s about it.
Why is this so good? Well, the custard is lightly seasoned and then fried in a simple coating of cornstarch. That cornstarch is a touch of genius, because it allows the outside to crunch up and the eggs to billow out, turning the little yellow squares into golden balloons. Then, I make a lovely mix of at least three kinds of mushrooms seasoned with lots of fresh ginger, rice wine, soy sauce, rock sugar and green onions. All of that flavor is the perfect complement to the crunchy yet understated custard.
These powerful tastes and chewy textures bounce against the custard in a culinary marriage made in heaven. Finally, a pretty ring of crispy bok choy forms a wreath around the edge of the platter. Truth be told, my guests sometimes allow me a bite or two of the boy choy’s leftover leaves as a consolation prize.
Fried custard with mushrooms
Xiānggū dàndòufŭ 香菇蛋豆腐
Serves 4 to 6
For the custard:
8 large eggs
1¾ cup cool seasoned mushroom or chicken broth
½ cup cornstarch
Frying oil, as needed
For the bok choy:
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 pound baby bok choy, trimmed, cut into halves or quarters, and washed carefully
For the mushrooms and sauce:
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons julienned fresh ginger
3 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped, optional
8 ounces mixed trimmed mushrooms (such as black, oyster, king, enoki, gold, porcini or whatever looks good in the market) cut into 1-inch (or so) pieces
¼ cup rice wine (Taiwanese Mijiu recommended)
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 teaspoons rock sugar
½ cup unsalted stock
1 green onion, trimmed and chopped, for garnish
1. The custard can be steamed a day or two ahead of time: First, lightly beat the eggs with the stock. Prepare an 8-by-8-inch square or 8-inch round pan (depending upon the size of your steamer) by spraying it with oil. Pour the egg mixture through a strainer into the pan. Set the pan into a steamer over medium-low heat, cover and steam the custard for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the custard is set in the center. Remove the custard from the steamer, let it cool to room temperature, cover and refrigerate until chilled. Cut the custard into 1-inch squares. If you are using a round pan, don’t worry about the strange-shaped pieces; they can be fried first and placed in the bottom of the serving dish, where no one will notice them.
2. About 20 minutes before serving, prepare the bok choy by heating a wok over high heat until it starts to smoke. Add the oil and salt and swirl them around together. Add the bok choy and toss until the vegetables are just barely cooked and still crunchy. Remove them to a serving platter and shape them into a nest around the edge.
3. Toss the cubed custard in the cornstarch. Shake off the excess. Heat a large, flat frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the oil to a depth of about ¼ inch. When a speck of cornstarch added to the oil immediately bubbles up and disappears, start with the less pretty pieces of custard and add just enough pieces of the custard to the pan so that they are not crowded. Fry them on one side until golden, turn over, and when completely golden, remove from the pan and place them in the center of the bok choy nest. Repeat with the rest of the custard until done.
4. While the custard is frying, make the mushroom sauce: Clean the wok and heat it over high heat. Add the oil and then the ginger, green onions and garlic, and toss these together for about 10 seconds to release their fragrance. Add the mushrooms and toss them all to coat the mushrooms with the oil. As the mushrooms start to brown, add the rice wine, soy sauce and sugar. Toss more, taste and adjust the seasoning. Toss in the stock and keep the wok moving until the sauce has thickened. Pour this on top of the custard. Serve immediately.
Top photo: Cantonese fried custard with mushrooms. Credit: Carolyn Phillips