During college, in the throes of a bad flu, I called my mother and asked her how she makes 蛋羹 (dàn gēng), a savory and tender steamed egg dish. For allaying a throbbing headache and chills, nothing could provide warming, comforting relief better than the familiar food.
Steamed egg custard is what I'm partial to eating in times of unease or fatigue. At the end of a trying day, this forgiving dish asks for little — no arduous chopping, stirring or washing. All it takes is a bit of calm whisking, followed by a quiet wait while the dish steams. Yet, for what little work the process requires, it gives much in return: a reassuringly soft, warm meal that feels toasty in the belly and is delicate on digestion. The mild umami flavor and pillowy consistency, while nourishing the body, somehow concurrently pacify the soul. Even the aromatic steam, wafting up toward you as you eat, feels uplifting.
"It's what I make when I don't have much appetite, or when I'm not in great spirits. It just can't go wrong," my cousin Sherry, who lives in Shanghai, told me over WeChat. "And it's so universal that every family probably makes it a little differently, so it kind of represents a 'taste of home.'"
It took moving away from home to realize how deeply my brain seems to associate this recipe with the comforts of familiarity. In high school, I frequently scarfed it down with gratitude after long days of studying or music rehearsal, when my mother waited up just to make sure I had something nutritious to eat when I got home. It's what I ate the morning after getting my wisdom teeth removed, each nibble gently buoying me from post-surgery lethargy. And it's the only thing I could think to eat when the flu struck — even though I was three time zones away from my mother and uncertain of how to cook the dish, despite having watched her go through the motions many times before.
Over the phone, my mom walked me through the steps, doling out tips as I rummaged around my dorm kitchen and attempted to act out her instructions with limited cookware. She stayed on the line as I beat the eggs in a bowl, sprinkled in salt and poured in broth, then placed a steaming rack into a pot of water on the stove. While we waited for it to boil, she asked whether I had enough cough syrup and blankets, then reminded me to scrape any bubbles off the top of the egg mixture to ensure the final dish would have a smooth surface. When the water began to boil, I adjusted the heat down and, at my mother's advice, covered the bowl with a plate to prevent condensation from dripping down into the egg and forming craters. I placed the covered bowl onto the steaming rack and closed the lid.
Thirteen minutes later, I held my breath and uncovered the pot. The steam dissipated to reveal a sunny, piping bowl of jiggly, custardy egg. I drizzled some soy sauce and sesame oil over the top, then dug in for a bite.
Though my surroundings were different now and the utensils belonged to my roommate, the taste was, unmistakably, my mother's.
Since that bout of flu, I've made this savory steamed egg custard countless times, both in sickness and in health. The simple, trusty dish always comes together with minimal effort — reliable enough to serve as a supportive side dish, yet filling enough to be a full meal — making it especially optimal on days when I'm too spent to ponder endlessly over what to eat.
“When everyone in the family is busy and dinner needs just one more dish to feel complete, I'll quickly whip this up," Cheng Yi, a chef in Chongqing, China, told me.
My friend, Simon Cao, who hails from Beijing and now lives in California, often relies on it for breakfast on busy school days. "It's convenient to make, and delicious with a side of bread or steamed buns," he said. Cao also recalls eating a lot of the dish in preschool when his permanent teeth had yet to erupt: "It's really soft, so it didn't require much chewing."
I learned recently that, for many, the tendency to associate this custardy dish with comfort starts young. When I met my baby cousin for the first time not long ago, I watched my aunt guide a spoonful of steamed egg custard toward his awaiting mouth. He chewed slowly, contemplating the texture, and swallowed — then stared intently at the bowl in my aunt's hands, in urgent request for more.
"He's taking well to solid food," she observed, feeding him another small bite. "There's no food better suited for the introduction." The softness and warmth of the dish, my aunt explained, makes it the preferred inaugural food of many Chinese parents.
Perhaps this early exposure is what plants in so many of us a predisposition for enjoying the dish. But over the years, what sustains the fondness, I think, are the long days, late nights and early mornings, during which the meal dependably delivers its nourishing optimism, coaxing us from gloom.
I hope you'll think of this readily adaptable recipe as the perfect pair of jeans: simple and wonderful on its own, yet welcoming of complementary additions that infuse it with more complexity. Add in some clams or mushrooms before steaming for a protein boost, or top with chili crisp or caramelized onions to serve.