I seem to be in a minority of one. My belief is that chawanmushi, hormok and dab chingri are all related to one another. Everyone else that I have spoken to about my pet theory has heaped scorn on me and told me not to be a fool. ‘Everyone’ includes chefs from the Far East, serious foodies and Bengali friends.
Chawanmushi is a delicate fish custard from Japan. It’s well-known as a breakfast dish, though it does duty for other times of the day too. Steamed in a single-serve lidded dish, its recipe is simple enough: strain an egg several times through muslin, so that you’ll get a smoothly textured custard. Chop cod (or any other soft fish), previously cooked shiitake mushrooms and fish sticks (basically reconstituted fish) into evenly sized pieces. Drop them into the custard that is made with dashi stock and the egg, and steam. In exactly six minutes, you should have a barely set custard with all the chopped ingredients suspended in it at every level. You know that something’s gone horribly wrong if the custard is too firm or – worse still – still liquid, and if all the other ingredients have sank to the bottom.
Hormok from the south of Thailand is not as complicated. It calls for fish to be finely flaked and added to an egg custard, with coconut milk, krachai and red curry paste. It is traditionally steamed in a banana leaf cup, so that the leaf imparts its distinctive flavour to the hormok. When well made, it is barely set, and as light as the foam on a wave at the beach. Steaming and serving it in a coconut shell is a nouvelle twist that chefs across the world resort to: it makes for a prettier presentation, but the flavour of the banana leaf is lost.
Which brings us to the third comparable dish – dab chingri. It’s one of the few dishes in Indian cookery that is baked inside the shell of a tender coconut. It’s one of the even fewer dishes in India that is yellow coloured, without the use of haldi. All you use for it is grated coconut and mustard. Okay, so it’s not set like a custard, but flowing – so what? It’s spicy only because of the mustard, yet delicate because of the coconuts and prawns.
Chefs that I have battled with on this point (Umesh Kapoor of The Grand, New Delhi, Veena Arora, The Imperial) and formidable foodies like Suddha Kukreja (Chilli Seasson, Red Hot Café, Ploof) have told me to go eat crow. “Isn’t pootu of Kerala steamed in a bamboo?” they’ve challenged. However, I’m not budging from my view. If chingri malai curry was originally chingri Malay curry, according to Pallavi Thakur Bose, of Delhi’s Chowringhee restaurant, can’t dab chingri have come to Bengal from much further east? At least, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.
Caption: Hormok should be available at most Thai restaurants. Benjurong in Chennai and Baan Thai in Kolkata should be able to do it, at least if you give them a day’s notice. Try and bully the management at Joss and Busaba, Mumbai for chawanmushi. Oh Calcutta (Kolkata and Mumbai) does a watered down version of dab chingri, with hardly any mustard, for fear of frightening away non-Bengalis. For better luck, try Kewpie’s and Radhuni Resaurant, Kolkata.