A Shrimp Egg Custard to Cure Homesickness

This shrimp egg custard can also be made vegetarian. Photo by the author.

“We are big city people,” my father said as we drove around my hometown of Reno, Nevada. “This town is small; it’s not the type of place that we’re from.” My parents are from Shanghai, China, and my father returned for higher paying employment opportunities when I was 8 years old. The population of Shanghai is over 24 million, nearly triple the population of New York City’s five boroughs combined. This conversation in my youth is likely the reason I moved to New York City when I was 18: I considered Los Angeles, but my emboldened younger self craved an epic challenge: to tackle Shanghai’s American twin city. He had convinced me that a bustling metropolitan lifestyle was in our genes. 

After a decade of living in New York, I still adore Reno. New York is not a city known for easy living, and I’m often homesick. When my father and I rendezvous at home, we take similar car rides and simply repeated this comment to each other, “The sky…Unbelievable.” He was accustomed to the Shanghai smog, and I to tall buildings and dank alleys. The sunset in the desert is a marvel to behold—a swirl of tangerine, lavender, honey yellow, coral pink, as if a deity had used the sky as a canvas with no end. We had spent so much time in our respective large cities that the Nevada sunsets left us speechless.  

I have a recurring dream that I’m walking in a dried-up lake bed. Snow-capped mountains are in the distance, and the sky is a dome of powder blue. It is a generic, fictitious version of Nevada desert. I walk at an even pace, seemingly not advancing in any noticeable way. This dream has no sound. There is no obligation at the edge. Just a slow, even pace with my shoes padding along compacted hard white dust. 

Sometimes in the state between sleep and wakefulness, I’m roused by ambient noises and think, I wish my sister didn’t enter the house like that, or my mom’s heels are too loud. When I am cognizant, I realize again that I live alone in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I remind myself that I was privileged enough to choose this life. Another day begins.   

My favorite meal to prepare when I’m especially homesick is steamed egg custard with shrimp and a bowl of white jasmine rice. In childhood, dinners prepared diligently by my mother were often comprised of several dishes; every family member had their obligatory bowl of rice; and the steamed egg dish was a staple. My parents were children during Mao Tse-Tung’s reign, and during the Cultural Revolution many recipes were born of scarcity. There’s something poetic to adding water to a humble ingredient like egg to stretch rations to feed a family.  To me, food is not just sustenance; it’s time travel. I’m transported to an intimate dinner table, the arid climate is tangible on my skin, and the bustle of the city disappears, replaced by the chirping of crickets, blissful in neighbors’ yards.  

Chinese Steamed Egg Custard with Shrimp

3 large eggs
5-6 medium size shrimp *For a vegetarian version substitute Chinese preserved radishes, found in airtight packaging at your local Asian market*
1 tablespoon Shaoxing cooking wine
1 teaspoon Chili Sesame Oil
2 dashes of white pepper
Salt
Cilantro, soy sauce, chili oil, and scallions, to garnish

Place a metal steam wire rack in a large pot or wok and bring approximately 4-5 cups of water to boil. Peel and de-vein shrimp. Rough chop 2 shrimp for mixture, and set aside 3 whole shrimp, to top the dish. Add chopped shrimp, salt, white pepper, a dash of Shaoxing cooking wine in a small mixing bowl and marinate for 10-15 minutes. In a larger bowl, thoroughly whisk 3 eggs. Fill the bowl with cold water about an inch from the edge of the bowl. Add the marinated shrimp mixture and whisk thoroughly once again. Gently place the egg mixture on the steam rack and cover for approximately 8 minutes. Lift the lid, add the 3 whole shrimp, and steam for another 5 minutes. Garnish with cilantro, scallions, soy sauce, and hot chili oil. Enjoy with a side of plain steamed white rice.

 

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