These days, the chill in the morning is crisp as I bring Cy out for his morning walks in our new neighborhood. The air is misty and the ground on the nearby forest is covered with freshly fallen leaves. But in the afternoons, the skies open up brightly for glorious autumnal colors of gold, crimson, magenta – the festive trees celebrating their colorful farewell before winter takes over. It is spectacular, foliage bursting everywhere above and drying into darker hues below. There are more arbor species in North America then most places in the world – producing colors more varied and vibrant, giving more texture to the landscape.
As a little girl, I remember walking in the mountains near Kamigamo temple in Kyoto in the fall, with the red Japanese maple and gold ginko trees covering the hills. It is a residential area on the edge of a wild protected forest with views across Kyoto. Along the hills, you could see people raking their own gardens and making small fires, dotting the skyline with streams of smoke and filling the air with the scent of burnt warmth.
On these cool but sunny days, my mother would make us chawan mushi, or savory flan/custard – literally translated it means a steamed rice bowl. She would put ginan nuts, or ginko tree seeds and lily roots with fish cakes, mitsuba leaves, shrimp, chicken and scallions. It is a seasonal dish, since freshly dried ginko tree seeds are only available in the fall. The seeds are considered a delicacy. The flesh is gold and when cooked, has a tender flesh with a mild subtle flavor. How can I describe it? It is like a cooked skinless almond with a hint of tartness and softer bouncy flesh. I used to dig through the chawan mushi excitedly, finding that one ginan nut hidden like a gem beneath the egg custard, chicken and fish cakes. The thrill comes in not knowing and not being able to see what it hidden inside. You can add anything, from root vegetables to other proteins and herbs. The custard/flan should be soft and juicy with the dashi stock floating around the just set custard. It is traditionally served as a side dish in lieu of a miso soup or other soups with rice and protein/vegetable dishes, but you can make bigger batches for a main course or serve it as a starter.
It is a warm comfort food for babies, kids and adults – a perfect way to enjoy a chilly evening before the real cold sets in.
Savory Flan with Chicken and Shrimp Chawan mushi
1 tablespoon dashi Tsuyu stock
1 1/2 cups warm water
2 chicken legs, meat cut off the bone and into bite-size chunks
½ tablespoon dried pumpkin seeds
A few celery leaves or chives for decorating
4 ramekins (6 oz each) or 4 small round bowls for baking
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- In a bowl, combine the dashi and water.
- In another bowl, whip the eggs. Then add the dashi mixture.
- Place the chicken legs into the ramekins. Then sprinkle the seeds.
- Place the ramekins into a deeper dish and pour boiling water high around the ramekins for a hot water bake which will gently steam the flan. Bake until flan is just set, about 25-30 minutes or until set but still very soft, almost wabbly (if over baked, the eggs will stiffen).
- Sprinkle celery leaves or chives and serve warm.