Monday, April 11, 2016

Silky, sensuous, savory custard from Shanghai

This is comfort food of the highest order. Yes, it’s simple, straightforward, inexpensive, and very delicious, but it is also so silky and cosseting that I feel like I’m being pampered whenever I see it on the table, even if I was the one who made it.

Here are my secrets to making this perfect the first time around:

First, locate some small, fresh clams, not much larger than an inch (2.2 cm) across. You want them to be tender enough so that you don’t have to wrestle with them, either in your mouth or on your plate. You can double the amount of clams, if you like.

Second, use a combination of the clam juices and chicken stock to add a vibrant xianwei undertone to the light flavors of the shellfish and eggs. Strain the clam juice, as there almost always will be fine sand from the clams in there. Just to be absolutely sure that no grit sneaks into your dish, let the clam juice cool and settle so that you only have to deal with the top layer of clear liquid.

Third, always strain the egg mixture as you pour it into the bowl. This makes the texture even and smooth, with no wobbly bits sitting around half cooked or looking weird. Straining your custard makes a world of difference.

Fourth, opening up the steamer halfway through cools off the custard just a bit so that the edges don’t become overcooked. What happens is that the interior keeps on cooking, so this little step helps to even out the texture. Be sure not to steam the eggs past the point that they have firmed up, as otherwise holes will form in the custard and the texture will harden. It will still taste good, but you will no longer have that divine texture.
Smallish clams

If you don’t like clams, try some fresh mussels or shrimp or cubes of a mild fish in here. Baby peas would be pretty in here, too, and provide a nice bit of textural contrast.

The ginger and ginger oil are my own contributions to this classic. Feel free to use fried green onions and their oil, toasted sesame oil, or whatever appeals to you and complements your menu.

Clams in custard
Gélí zhēng dàn  蛤蜊蒸蛋
Serves 4 to 6

12 or so small clams (see headnote)
Water, as needed
¼ cup/15g finely chopped fresh ginger
½ cup/100g peanut or vegetable oil
Unsalted or lightly salted chicken stock, as needed
½ to 1 teaspoon fish sauce
3 large eggs

1. Scrub the clams and place them in a small pan. Add about an inch of water, cover, and place the pan on high heat. When it comes to a full boil, lower the heat to medium and simmer the clams covered for around 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Pluck out any clams that have already opened and place them in a heatproof bowl. Return the pan to the heat and continue to simmer the remaining clams for another minute or two, until all of them have opened up. If any remain shut at this point, be sure and discard them – do not force them open, as they were dead before they were cooked. Drain all of the cooking liquid through a very fine meshed strainer into a heatproof measuring cup. Add just enough chicken stock to make a full cup of liquid. Stir in the fish sauce to taste.

2. Clean out the saucepan, wipe it very dry, and place both the ginger and oil in it before setting it over medium heat. Adjust the heat as needed to maintain a very gentle bubbling around the ginger, as you want it to slowly release its juices before frying into a toasty brown. Drain the oil through a clean, dry strainer into a heatproof bowl and reserve the toasted ginger.
Simple perfection

3. About 5 minutes before serving, set up a steamer and bring a couple of inches of water to a full boil, then reduce the heat to medium high. While the steamer is heating up, lightly beat the eggs before mixing in in the clam juice/chicken stock. Pour the egg mixture through a strainer into a shallow, heatproof bowl and discard any gelatinous bits caught in the mesh. Set the bowl in the steamer and steam it over medium-high heat for 3 minutes.

4. Carefully remove the bowl and arrange the clams in their shells inside the custard. Sprinkle all of the toasted ginger over them, as well as around 2 tablespoons of the ginger oil. Return the custard to the steamer and steam it for another 3 to 5 minutes, or until the center is barely set; it will continue to cook in the residual heat, so be very careful not to overcook it. Serve immediate with a wide spoon.


  1. Smallish clams! My mother is Asian, so she like it. Thank your sharing. I will try doing it for her on weekend.

    1. Thanks, Janet! Hope she loves it as much as I do.