For one birthday lunch, my great comrade-in-chopsticks, Barbara Kafka, took me to a fancy New York City Chinese restaurant. There, amidst the high-tech furnishings and the thoroughly un-Chinese hush and fashionable gloom, we were served a splendid small meal. The highlight was this steamed egg custard, brought to the table in one large bowl—the old Chinese sort that resembles a cloud in shape, with an interior glaze of deep turquoise blue and a soupcon of soy on top to dramatize the golden custard. I felt, while eating it, like a Tang dynasty princess.
Soak the dried mushrooms in cold or hot water to cover until soft and spongy, 20 minutes to an hour. Snip off the stems with scissors, rinse the caps to dislodge any sand trapped in the gills, then cut into slivers ⅛ inch thin.
Soak the bean threads in hot water until rubber-band firm, not mushy. Drain, rinse, and drain again. Cut into 2-inch lengths, then gently simmer the drained noodles and slivered mushrooms in 1 cup of the chicken stock until the noodles are silky-soft and transparent, about 2 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat promptly, and let the noodles and mushrooms cool in the stock.
Beat the eggs lightly, until thoroughly mixed but not frothy. Skim off and discard any froth. Combine the remaining 1¼ cup stock, chicken fat, wine, and soy, stirring lightly to blend, then add to the eggs in a thin stream, stirring lightly to combine. Bit by bit, add the stock used to poach the noodles, stirring gently, then gradually add the salt, stirring and tasting several times until you have added almost enough. Undersalt a bit, as the dish will be garnished with a sprinkling of soy. During the entire operation, take care not to beat the mixture or you will create bubbles that will undermine the final texture of the custard. Once blended, strain the egg mixture through a fine sieve to trap all the googly egg bits.
Scatter the mushrooms, noodles, peas and pork in the bottom of a deep, heatproof 1½-quart bowl. Pour the egg mixture to within ½ inch of the lip, then cover the bowl with aluminum foil to prevent condensation during steaming. Proceed immediately to steam the custard.
(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)
Bring the water in the steaming vessel to a gushing boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium or thereabouts to maintain a steady, gentle steam, then add the covered bowl to the steamer. Cover the steamer and steam the custard undisturbed for 25–30 minutes. It is done when a knife inserted about an inch down into the center of the custard comes out clean. The texture will be very tender, not firm.
Remove the bowl carefully from the steamer, then lift the foil straight up from the bowl to avoid adding any water that may have accumulated on the foil to the custard. Garnish with a sprinkling of soy, followed by the scallion rings or coriander.
Serve the custard at once. If the table is small and the group is a cozy one, give each guest a small heated bowl and a porcelain spoon and invite them to help themselves, Chinese style, directly from the serving bowl.
Leftovers may be rewarmed by steaming gently in a covered bowl.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.