Hetty Lui McKinnon’s recipe for Steamed “Water Egg” with Custard

By / Premium Content / September 10th, 2022 / Like

By Hetty Lui McKinnon 

Serves 4, with rice 

Gluten Free 

  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup (125 ml) boiled water, cooled until it’s just warm (not hot) to the touch
  • Sea salt
  • Topping options 
  • Sliced scallion 
  • Handful of cilantro leaves
  • Toasted sesame oil
  • Toasted white sesame seeds
  • Ginger-Scallion Oil
  • Everything Oil 

It may come as a surprise that a recipe with three ingredients (one of which is water) has been the bane of my culinary life. In Cantonese, we call this dish “water egg”—egg whisked with water and a dab of salt, then steamed until it becomes a smooth, soft savory custard. I loved this dish when I was growing up, and I still do. My mother made it with dried scallops and we devoured it spooned over white rice. I always thought this dish was one of my mother’s easier recipes, but when I tried to make it for myself, I was met with failure, time and again. Where my mother’s steamed water egg was silky and light, mine was puffy and clumpy. Her custard was more baby’s bottom, mine more wrinkly face. When I finally cracked it, the answer was actually in a small-but-mighty detail my mother had mentioned countless times—low heat, slow cooking time. In the end, the quest to perfect this three-ingredient recipe taught me a great deal: the importance of listening, the power of patience and that Mum is always right.

A smooth slippery texture is key to this dish. Using cooled, boiled water is important as this helps it combine with the egg. The water should not be hot at all; it should be warm, similar to tepid tap water.

This savory egg custard can be served however you like. A simple topping is soy sauce, sesame oil and sliced scallions or cilantro. You could also top it with ginger–scallion oil or an aromatic oil like my everything oil, or enjoy it, unadorned.

  • Beat the eggs in a mixing bowl until the whites and yolks are completely blended. Place the bowl on a tea towel (to stop it from moving around) and slowly add the water in a steady stream, whisking constantly. Add ½ teaspoon of sea salt and whisk vigorously until the mixture is very well combined.
  • Place a steaming rack or trivet in a saucepan (make sure it will hold the bowl you will steam the custard in), then add water until it is just underneath the rack. Bring the water to the boil.
  • Pour the egg mixture through a sieve into a shallow heatproof bowl (the one I use is about 7 inches [17.5 cm] wide). Once the water has reached a rolling boil, place the bowl on the steaming rack or trivet. Cover with a lid, and immediately reduce the heat to the lowest temperature possible. Allow to steam for about 10 minutes, then lift the lid to see if the egg has set in the middle. If not, cover again and steam for another minute or so until it is set with a slight wobble. When the egg is ready, turn off the heat and leave the egg to sit, covered, for 5 minutes before removing.
  • Serve warm just as is, or with your chosen toppings, but always with rice.

Ginger-scallion oil

  • Makes about 2 cups (500 ml)
  • 5 ounces (140 g) ginger, peeled and finely chopped (a roughly 7-inch / 17.5-cm piece)
  • 6 scallions, finely sliced, white and green parts separated
  • 1 tablespoon tamari or gluten-free soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 1 ¼ cups (310 ml) vegetable or other neutral oil

You’ll find many uses for ginger–scallion oil. It is particularly pleasing as a salad dressing, tossed through soba noodles, used as a dipping sauce for scallion pancakes or dumplings, or folded through roasted vegetables. You can also do as I did as a child and slather it over white rice.

Hetty Lui McKinnon pulling noodles | Photo Credit: Shirley Cai

All ginger–scallion oil recipes vary on the ginger–scallion sliding scale—some are ginger-heavy, while others are scallion-centric. Mine is the former, and decidedly so. Some people like to grate their ginger to make it finer and smoother, so do this if this is your preference also. For me, I like to taste my ginger emphatically, so I chop it into a fine dice.

  • Place the ginger, white part of the scallion, tamari or soy sauce and sea salt in a heatproof bowl.
  • Place the oil in a small saucepan over medium–high heat for 3–4 minutes. It is hot enough if it sizzles when you place a wooden chopstick into it. Very carefully pour the oil over the ginger and scallion mixture. Allow to cool, then add the green part of the scallion and stir to combine. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for several weeks. Bring to room temperature before using.

Everything oil

  • Makes about 2 cups (500 ml)
  • 2 tablespoons red chili flakes
  • 2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns
  • 2 tablespoons gochugaru (Korean red chile flakes)
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 1 cup (250 ml) vegetable or other neutral oil
  • 2-inch (5 cm) piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 star anise
  • 1 cinnamon stick

This is my version of Sichuan chili oil (sometimes called mala hot sauce), which I have called “everything oil” because, well, it makes everything taste better. Like my ginger–scallion oil, it can be used as a salad dressing, a stir-fry sauce, a dumpling dip or simply as a topping. The Sichuan peppercorns leave a slight numbing and tingly feeling in your mouth. If you don’t care for this sensation, or can’t get hold of Sichuan peppercorns or gochugaru, then just use red chili flakes instead (you may need to reduce the quantity, though, as chili flakes are spicier). This oil definitely gets better with time. The longer it sits, the more flavorful and aromatic it becomes.

A note for those who don’t love spice: make this oil without the chili flakes, or use a dramatically reduced amount. The oil will still be aromatic from the ginger, garlic, star anise and cinnamon, and a worthy addition to everything you eat.

  • In a heatproof bowl, add the chili flakes, Sichuan peppercorns, gochugaru and sea salt.
  • Place the oil, ginger, garlic, star anise and cinnamon in a small saucepan over medium–high heat for 3–4 minutes—the oil is ready when it looks thin, like water. Remove from the heat and very carefully pour the hot oil into the bowl with the spices—the oil will sizzle and spit, so stand back. Allow to cool.
  • Stir before serving. I don’t strain it as the chili and spices continue to flavor the oil over time. Everything oil can be drizzled over noodles, dumplings, soups and salads. Store in a sterilized jar (no need to refrigerate) for up to 3 months. 

Recipes taken with permission from To Asia, With Love by Hetty McKinnon (Prestel, 2021). Images © Hetty McKinnon.

Feature Photo Credit: Hetty Lui McKinnon

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