5 unique Japanese ways to eat eggs

A simple treat (photo by Robyn Lee.

A simple treat (photo by Robyn Lee).

Japan loves eggs and has developed unique ways of eating them. Eggs are so pervasive in most people fridge that we pay them little notice. They have become part of the background, an almost boring necessity. In the digital age, there is no limit to what people might come up with like scrambling eggs in their shell . in Japan, due to Buddhist beliefs that proscribed the killing of animals, both meat and eggs became a staple relatively late in Japan. This singular historic and cultural context has informed the way eggs are prepared in Japan. The place that eggs occupy in Japanese cuisine is quite different than in Western cooking. Rather than being a binder that add richness to a confection, it is most often used as a main ingredient.  Japanese breeds of hen and a diet rich in carotene also result in a very different egg with a thick shell and an intense orange yolk.

1. Marinated soft-boiled egg

Ajitsuke Tamago translated as seasoned egg is in fact a soft-boiled egg marinated in Japanese soy sauce, mirin and sugar. The egg is a popular ramen toping probably a legacy of the Chinese soy sauce braised eggs. Like most things Japanese, the marinated egg was incorporated in Japanese cooking and improved upon. The preparation of these egg has evolved into an art form perfected through experience and practice. In fact, ramen shops with the best ajitsuke tamago jealously keep the secret of its preparation. Personal preference dictates the exact timing of the soft-boiled egg. The sweet spot is when the white is totally cooked but the yolk has as little coagulation as possible. It is harder than it seems since egg size, cookware and even atmospheric pressure need to be factored in. The soy marinade adds a touch of saltiness to the whites while visually creating a nice contrast.

Ajitsuke Japanese egg

Ajitsuke Japanese egg

2. Japanese sweet omelet

Tamagoyaki or grilled egg is a sweet rolled omelet flavored with sake, soy sauce and sugar. The preparation using the special square frying pan called makiyakinabe takes some practice to master and constant supervision. It is usually served cold as a last course in the omakase, the sushi chef’s selections of the day. Since few people that order it in the US, many sushi restaurant order it premade, however, this would be unacceptable in a for a Japanese sushi chef since freshness is of the essence. Japanese chefs use different tamagoyaki cooking technique. In the documentary Jiro dream of sushi, the apprentice adds yamaimo to the recipe and uses an unorthodox four chopstick flipping technique that gives it the appearance of a custard cake. The dashimaki version also incorporates dashi and several filling like cod row or spinach.

Delicately rolled omelet

Delicately rolled omelet

3. Slow cooked “natural spring” egg

Onsen Tamago or hot springs egg is perhaps the most unusual cooking technique of the lot. The eggs are traditionally cooked in bamboo baskets that are dipped in one of Japan’s numerous hot springs. The end product is an egg with partially congealed albumen on the outside and custardy yolks on the inside. It is most often eaten as a side dish with tsuyu dipping sauce or on top of a beef and rice bowl. Onsen Tamago first started as a snack for weary hot spring travellers and is now available in every convenience store in Japan. When looking for these eggs in Japan, they will be labelled 温泉玉子. Similar results can be achieve at home by slow cooking eggs at low temperature (70°C for 40 min).  It is will definitively be worth the wait. The good news, the egg doesn’t have to be peeled and can be just cracked open.

Soft whites and rich yellow custard

Soft whites and rich yellow custard

4. Japanese steamed custard

Chawan mushi (literally: steamed tea bowl) is a egg custard steamed in a porcelain cup with a lid. The eggs are beaten and mixed with dashi, sugar and soya sauce. It is customary to add in several items like bits of shrimp, chicken, kamaboko, mushroom and ginko nut. Chawan mushi is steamed at low temperature to avoid air bubbles (the opposite of soufflé). This cooking technique was likely borrowed from Chinese steamed eggs or Korean Gyeran Jjim and improved upon. You will find this dish in many Japanese restaurant. However, few manage to master the proper cooking technique or the richness of dashi necessary to give umami to the custard. Don’t try to eat it with your chopsticks this is one of the few Japanese dishes eaten with a spoon.

A savory custard

A savory custard

5. Raw Japanese egg

Nama Tamago or raw egg is a delicacy seldom eaten in the West. Japan high food safety standards mean that eggs and chicken can be eaten raw. Japanese people might have also developed a tolerance to organism present on raw food. Raw foods are considered better in Japan since they are closer to the food’s natural state. The coating qualities of the egg can add texture and  the overall flavor of the food that it is mixed with. Raw egg can be whisked and used as dipping sauce in sukiyaki to balance the saltiness of the soy sauce broth. Nama Tamago can also be mixed with rice for delicious breakfast “golden rice”. Yakitori shops separate egg yolk from the albumen and serve the yolk with grilled chicken meatballs.

Raw egg and graded mountain yam (photo by kagen33)

Raw egg and graded mountain yam (photo by kagen33)

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