The average Japanese person eats around 320 eggs (tamago) per year, according to the International Egg Commission, placing it in the Top 3 worldwide. (In comparison, the average American eats around 250 eggs per year.) Eggs are enjoyed in many sweet and savory dishes, such as the famous (or infamous) breakfast egg dish called tamagokake-gohan, a raw egg mixed with hot steamed rice and seasoned with a drizzle of soy sauce. Other popular egg dishes include om-rice, a rice-filled omelet; pudding (or purin), the Japanese version of caramel flan; and chawanmushi, a savory steamed egg custard.

However, these quintessentially Japanese dishes were not widely eaten until fairly recent times.

Domestic chickens were introduced to Japan from China via Korea around 2,500 years ago, but eggs were used for medicinal purposes and as sacred offerings rather than as food. Egg consumption was banned periodically from the 14th century, since they were usually included in several Buddhism-based anti-animal consumption edicts (although curiously, eating chickens was OK). It only became acceptable to eat eggs in the Edo Period (1603-1867), albeit as a luxury item. Even in the early 20th century, the average Japanese only ate about 40 eggs per year.

It wasn’t until after World War II that egg consumption really took off. Foods that were high in protein and calcium were deemed to be critical to improving the damaged health of the Japanese population, and the government and the media pushed hard to increase the consumption of eggs, dairy products and meat. By the 1960s, eggs were a household staple. One of the catchphrases that defined the 1960s and ’70s was “Kyojin, Taiho, tamagoyaki,” the three things most loved by children — the Yomiuri Giants (Kyojin) baseball team, a popular sumo grand champion, and the sweet-savory omelet that is now a firm staple of bentō boxed lunches.

Eggs sold in Japan have a “best by” date stamped on their package. This date indicates the last day when eggs can be safely consumed raw or undercooked — an important factor, since so many eggs are eaten in that state. According to the Japan Egg Producers Association, undamaged eggs that have been properly stored are safe to eat raw up to 16 days after laying in the summer, and up to 57 days in the winter. Beyond this they should be cooked through.

Besides tamagokake-gohan, raw eggs are used as a dipping sauce for sukiyaki, dropped on top of curry rice, mixed with natto (fermented soybeans) to make a very slimy yet delicious side dish and more. There are also onsen tamago, eggs that are cooked in their shells at around 67 degrees so that the yolk becomes soft-set and the white remains loose. Onsen tamago used to only be available at hot springs (onsen), where they were cooked by suspending them in baskets in the hot spring water, but nowadays you can buy them at any supermarket.

This month’s recipe is for nitamago, the flavorful soft-boiled eggs that are often used as a ramen topping. Although the ni part means to simmer, nitamago are actually marinated after they’re soft-boiled. Nitamago keep for several days in the refrigerator, and can be used in many ways besides ramen — in salads, sandwiches or just on their own as a tasty snack.

Recipe: nitamago (marinated eggs)

8 to 10 fresh eggs, room temperature
500 ml chicken soup/instant ramen soup
100 ml mirin
100 ml soy sauce

Bring some water to the boil. Gently add the eggs using a ladle. Boil for 6½-7 minutes to make soft-boiled eggs. Drain the eggs and immediately immerse in very cold water, then peel.

To make the soup, dissolve a chicken soup stock cube or a packet of instant ramen soup in 500 ml of hot water in a small pan (or use homemade soup stock). Put the soup in a small pan with the mirin, soy sauce and sugar and bring to a boil while stirring to dissolve the sugar. Let the liquid cool to room temperature.

Put the eggs in a sturdy plastic storage bag. Add enough liquid to immerse the eggs. Place the bag in the fridge (with a tray or bowl underneath) and marinate for at least 24 hours before eating. The longer you keep the eggs in the marinade, the saltier they will become.

Keep refrigerated in a tightly sealed container, and eat within a week.

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.