The Japanese really like tamago-yaki.
It is made by beating chicken eggs, then mixing in a stock that has sugar,
soy sauce, salt, and maybe some other seasonings. The mixture is fried and
turned over several times while cooking.
Any Japanese person 40 years old or more probably remembers
the childhood expression common in the 1960s, "Kyojin, Taiho, tamago-yaki."
This was a list of three things kids were sure to like: the Giants, a professional
baseball team that kept on winning; Taiho, a sumo grand champion (yokozuna)
and sports hero; and omelet, the perfect example of what children liked
to eat. Today, people tend to have their own food preferences, but tamago-yaki
is still a favorite for everyone, regardless of age. It is very easy to
make at home, but oddly enough, no one knows when tamago-yaki was
Chicken eggs were first eaten in Japan in the Edo period
(1603-1867). Near the end of the 18th century, a comprehensive book called
Manpo Ryori Himitsu-bako (A Treasury of Secret Recipes) was published.
The book, also known as Tamago Hyakuchin (A Hundred Unusual Egg Recipes),
did not contain any recipe for the Japanese-style omelet we eat today. Another
book, Ryori Kanben-shu (A Compendium for Simple Cuisine, published
1806), contained a recipe for a dish that can be considered the ancestor
of today's tamago-yaki, though it is a little different. It calls
for pieces of fish, prawn or other seafood to be diced to the size of about
1 cm cubes, mixed in beaten eggs with chopped green onions, then fried.
Fukuda Hiroshi has researched the culinary traditions
of old Edo (Tokyo during the Edo period), and says that the recipe for the
tamago-yaki we eat today was probably first developed around the
time the Shogunate fell, in the late 1860s. In the Meiji period, which began
in 1868, take-out box lunches sold by restaurants always had pieces of tamago-yaki,
boiled fish cake (kamaboko), and mashed sweet potato with sugar
added (kinton). Chicken eggs were a luxury in those days, but gradually
became part of the diet of working people.
For some reason, the tamago-yaki made in Kansai
(Osaka region) does not contain the same seasonings used in Kanto (Tokyo
region). Kansai cooks use only a seasoned stock and salt, so the omelet
keeps its yellow-egg color. In Kanto they add soy sauce and sugar, so the
color of the omelet is darker, and it is easier to give the surface a nice
braised look. And of course the taste is different, too people from Kansai
who try Kanto-style tamago-yaki find the sweet taste surprising.
In Japan, the price of chicken eggs hardly rose at all for a couple of decades
after World War II. Considered "inflation-proof," they became one of
the cheapest foods one could buy.
We asked Yamasaki Mika, who studied cooking at a restaurant with a long
tradition in old Tokyo-style cuisine, to make tamago-yaki
in the traditional
Kanto style. She says the key to giving the omelet a light texture is to
keep the pan at the right temperature. The egg mixture contains a fair amount
of sugar, which can make it burn easily, but you should keep the heat quite
high and fry it quickly. If you use a round frying pan, cook the egg like
you would an ordinary omelet, but tap the handle in such a way as to get
the egg to roll into a nice shape. Happy cooking!
Our chef is Yamasaki Mika, the owner of a
Japanese restaurant called Yamasaki. She apprenticed for nine years at a
restaurant with a long tradition in old Tokyo-style cuisine. In 2002, at
a relatively early age, she established her own restaurant. Many customers
come for the experience of eating tamago-yaki as a starter while
the main dish is cooking in a pot.