Big Little Recipes

Have Eggs, Water & Salt? Hetty McKinnon Knows Just the Recipe

April  6, 2021

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. That means five ingredients or fewer—not including water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (like oil and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. This week, guest columnist (and best-selling author! and hummus genius!) Hetty McKinnon is sharing a nostalgic, magical dish from her newest cookbook, To Asia, With Love.

Of all the dishes from my childhood that I have tried to re-create, this three-ingredient steamed egg custard, or shui dan as we call it in Cantonese, has been one of the trickiest for me to master. And to think, two of those ingredients are water and salt.

When I first embarked on this custard, I set myself up to succeed. I shipped over to New York the very dish that my mum used to make her steamed eggs. I FaceTimed her countless times, fastidiously coaxing a recipe.

Of course, as is often the case with Asian mothers, there was no recipe, just a narrative around what not to do, rather than measurements or timings. She shared a lot of seemingly superfluous details like “make sure you use cooled, boiled water” and “steam it on a very, very low heat.”

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Top Comment:
“She would occasionally use chicken broth (in place of water) to season the egg custard. This dish is simple and delightful. It is my comfort food when I miss home and need a mother's hug.”
— Lily

I’ve got this, Mum, I know how to steam.

Photo by Julia Gartland. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog.

Turns out, I didn’t. Where my mother’s steamed water egg custard was silky and light, mine was puffy and pockmarked. Hers was the texture of a newborn’s skin, mine more reminiscent of a wrinkly face. When I called my mum to troubleshoot, she asked me two key things: Did you use cooled, boiled water? No. And steam it on very low heat? again.

Sometimes the difference between good and spectacular is in the details. Especially when it comes to few-ingredient recipes. My mother’s suggestion of “cooled, boiled water” was her way of telling me to use tepid water. A smooth, slippery texture is key to this dish, and the temperature of lukewarm water actually helps it combine with the egg. The water should not be hot at all; it should be warm, similar to bathwater.

Steaming is one of the tenets of Cantonese cooking, and while it is one of the simpler ways to cook, for dishes that call for delicacy and precision, it requires attention. Controlling the temperature is key. I’ll make this easy for you—for this recipe, use the lowest heat setting you have (I cook with a gas stovetop, so perhaps this will be different on an electric hob). Some say to cover your eggs with foil to prevent water droplets falling onto the eggs, marring their silky surface, but personally, I don’t find this step necessary.

Another helpful tip is to make sure your eggs are smooth and well beaten, but not so beaten that they have too many air bubbles—you can break up any clumps or slimy egg whites by pouring the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer.

There are many varieties of savory egg custards in Asian cultures. Japanese chawanmushi is a magical custard-soup hybrid that is made with dashi stock, while Korean gyeranjjim is similar, with a more soufflé-like finish. The Chinese version can be dressed up or down, depending on your mood. A simple topping is soy sauce, sesame oil, and sliced scallions or cilantro. You could also try ginger-scallion oil or an aromatic chile crisp. Or enjoy it unadorned.

In the end, the quest to perfect this Big Little Recipe taught me a great deal: the importance of listening, the power of patience, and that Mum is always right.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Bonniesue
  • Josiah Belflower
    Josiah Belflower
  • Lily
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Food writer, Author of Neighbourhood + Family


Bonniesue May 6, 2021
I remember arriving in Japan for the first time in the 1990’s after a long flight across many time zones. We were all very tired, but our hosts immediately took us to a formal meal. The most soothing dish was the egg custard, served in lovely individual covered dishes, with an artistically placed leaf on top. Truly appreciated.
Josiah B. April 7, 2021
This was fun. What is it called when you turn it into a dessert? Is that common in Asia?
Lily April 6, 2021
My mom made this dish for me when I was a child. She would occasionally use chicken broth (in place of water) to season the egg custard. This dish is simple and delightful. It is my comfort food when I miss home and need a mother's hug.
Hetty M. April 7, 2021
Lily, I am so happy to hear this! I really love to hear about these shared experiences. It is my comfort food too!
Jean M. April 6, 2021
I grew up eating the Korean version. We use these super salty tiny shrimps for the sodium (and umami)...I will never get sick of eating it with a bowl of rice.
Hetty M. April 7, 2021
I have read about the Korean version, my friends told me it's more "souffle-like" or fluffy. I love all the different variations! Ot brings us all closer together.
jpriddy April 6, 2021
This sounds wonderful. Has anyone else noticed how a little salt seems to break down eggs after they've sat for a few moments, easing the challenge of getting eggs smooth? Maybe while waiting for the water to cool let the salted eggs sit?
MacGuffin April 6, 2021
Gordon Ramsay. He seasons his scrambled eggs when they're done, not before.
Azize T. April 6, 2021
Kenji Lopez. He proved with science that eggs needs to be salted and sit for at least 15 mins
Caroline N. July 24, 2021
Yes, salt helps break down the proteins in the egg white
Tessi April 6, 2021
I am really looking forward to trying this, as I like the simplicity as well as it being a "comfort food"! I have one question: are the eggs being used directly from the fridge, or should they be at room temperature?
Hetty M. April 7, 2021
I use them straight from the fridge!
Tessi April 7, 2021
Thank you, Hetty! I have had the similar dish that is served in Japan and found it intriguing and calming at the same time. The texture that is described in this recipe certainly makes me think of what I ate in Japan.