If you’ve ever been to a Japanese convenience store, you’ve probably come across purin: a small dessert cup of sweet Japanese custard pudding with a caramel topping.
Custard has been popular in Japan since the Meiji era, when it became a classic component in Japanese yogashi, or Western-style sweets. Over the years, Japanese custard has been used as a filling in anything from taiyaki to Tokyo Banana, but it’s most popular use today is undoubtedly purin. Purin is a version of crème caramel, or caramel custard pudding, where a sweet egg custard is cooked with a liquid caramel syrup base. Indeed, purin is such a mainstay of Japanese snack food that it has escaped the confines of specialty patisseries and restaurants, and is readily available in convenience stores and as an instant mix in supermarkets.
But Japanese custard pudding obsession doesn’t stop with purin. Another popular custard dish is chawanmushi, a savory Japanese pudding often served as an appetizer in Japanese restaurants. This subtle, sophisticated custard treat builds on an egg custard base to create a quintessentially Japanese dish incorporating a flexible variety of ingredients and packed to the brim with umami flavor. Best of all, both purin and chawanmushi are easy to make at home, requiring little preparation time and only a few basic ingredients. Read on to learn the basics before you try your hand at these authentic Japanese custard treats!
Making Japanese Purin
How easy is easy? In the case of purin, most of the ingredients are probably already in your pantry! Japanese purin uses five main ingredients: eggs, sugar, milk, water, and vanilla essence for extra flavor. The recipe consists of three main steps: first, making the caramel, then the custard, and finally steaming the treat. The caramel is a simple mixture of sugar and water, cooked over medium heat until a rich amber color. Once ready, you’ll need to pour it into heatproof ramekins, or other cylindrical molds, and set aside.
For the custard base, whisk milk, egg, sugar, and vanilla essence together in a large bowl. This doesn’t need to be taxing—on the contrary, whisking can introduce air bubbles that affect the purin’s ultimate structural integrity, and should be kept to a minimum. Once the ingredients are fully combined, strain the egg mixture with a fine mesh strainer to ensure a smooth, milky texture, and divide between the waiting molds.
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Now comes the hardest part: instead of cooking your custard in an oven or on the stovetop, purin is typically cooked in a bain marie, a method that ensures the caramel doesn’t burn. A bain marie is simply a water bath, easily created by filling a deep frying pan or pot with hot water. Cover the top of the molds with aluminum foil or a lid and then place them into the water, making sure they are half submerged. Bring the water to a gentle boil and cook for 5 minutes. Then turn the heat off and leave to continue cooking for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, or until the surface of the purin is solid and shiny and the custard wobbles slightly in the molds. Finally, refrigerate for a few hours until cool and then serve flipped on a plate in the traditional style, or directly in their molds with a spoon!
If Japanese purin is Western-inspired yogashi, chawanmushi is as Japanese as it gets. This steamed egg custard gets its unique savory flavor from a mixture of umami dashi soup stock, soy sauce and mirin. A variety of ingredients are then folded through the custard, often seasonal, such as shiitake mushrooms, kamaboko fish cakes, and shrimp. But don’t worry if this sounds complicated! Hard-to-find Japanese ingredients can easily be substituted by more common add-ins like chicken, mushrooms, and carrots, and dashi stock can even be substituted by a flavorful chicken or vegetable stock.
To make chawanmushi, first prepare your add-in ingredients, cutting them into small, thin slices that will fit comfortably in the heat-proof containers of your choice. Then prepare the custard. Instead of milk, the pudding base in chawanmushi combines eggs with dashi stock, mirin rice wine, and soy sauce. As with purin, the mixture is strained for a silkier texture and then divided between your prepared containers. Finally, cover the containers with aluminum foil or a lid and cook in a bain marie, covered, for 25 to 30 minutes. Unlike purin, chawanmushi is best served warm, so make sure to dig in as soon as it’s ready!
After more than a century, Japan’s love affair with steamed custard pudding shows no signs of losing any steam. In 2019, Starbuck released a limited-edition drink celebrating Japan’s trendiest retro dessert, purin à la mode, which combines purin with ice-cream, fruit, and whipped cream. In 2020, Mister Donut filled its limited-edition Pikachu donut with sweet, purin-flavored cream. No matter what else the future brings, it seems sure to include more custard pudding Japanese treats—and personally, I can’t wait to see what comes next!