Earlier this year, yokozuna (sumo grand champion) Hakuho broke the all-time victory record of Taiho, the yokozuna regarded by many as the greatest sumo wrestler of the postwar period. This reminded me of a well-known saying from the 1960s, Taiho’s heyday, which says that Kyojin (the Yomiuri Giants baseball team), Taiho and tamagoyaki (rolled omelet) are the three things most-loved by Japanese children. A piece or two of cheery, bright yellow tamagoyaki is still considered to be an essential component of a bentō (boxed lunch).
Tamagoyaki (literally “egg cooked over dry heat”), which is also known as atsuyaki-tamago (“thick egg”), is a savory-sweet egg dish that is made by cooking a beaten-egg mixture in a hot pan in thin layers, which are rolled into a small bundle. Even though the egg is thoroughly cooked, a well-made tamagoyaki is as tender and soft as a soft-set French-style omelette. Besides being a ubiquitous bentō item, tamagoyaki is also a popular neta (sushi topping).
I like to have tamagoyaki — as sushi or sliced on its own — at the end of a meal at a sushi restaurant. Its soft sweetness is like a little dessert, and a palate cleanser.
Like a lot of traditional dishes that seem to have been around forever, the history of tamagoyaki is surprisingly not so old. Eggs were not eaten much until the Edo Period (1603-1868) and, when egg recipes started to appear in cookbooks in the mid- to late 18th century, they didn’t include tamagoyaki. The reason for this is simple: In order for the thin layers of a tamagoyaki to remain soft and tender even when they’re cooked, sugar and mirin are needed. Without them the egg becomes rather tough and rubbery. Both mirin and sugar were too expensive for all but the wealthy, so the tamagoyaki, as we know it today, didn’t make its appearance until the latter half of the 19th century.
Although sugar became a lot cheaper in the 20th century, eggs were still quite expensive until after World War II, but in the 1950s, the government started actively encouraging parents to give children more protein and, at the same time, encouraged farmers to keep more chickens. As the price of eggs dropped to the point where they were regarded as a cheap source of protein, the tamagoyaki-in-a-bentō became a standard.
Tamagoyaki can be simple and homey, made in a few minutes during busy mornings and tucked into a bento. It can also be high class and elegant. Dashimaki tamago, a variation of tamagoyaki that incorporates dashi stock into the egg mixture, is popular in the Kansai region; at its most refined it is part of Kyoto’s haute cuisine.
Tamagoyaki is popular on izakaya menus, and soba restaurants often have great tamagoyaki since they have good dashi stock on hand. You can also buy gourmet tamagoyaki in department store food halls, at places like Tsukiji’s Outer Market or Nishiki Dori in Kyoto, and even by mail order.
This month’s recipe is for a quick and simple tamagoyaki that works well in a bentō (ensure it has cooled completely before packing) or as a side dish. Dark soy sauce will make the surface of the tamagoyaki a light golden brown, so if you want a bright yellow tamagoyaki, use usukuchi (light colored) or shiro (white) soy sauce. If you don’t have a tamagoyaki pan, use a small nonstick frying pan.
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon mirin
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Beat the eggs well with chopsticks or a fork. Mix in the soy sauce, mirin, sugar and salt. Put the oil in a small bowl, fold a paper towel and soak it in the oil.
Heat up a square tamagoyaki pan (or small nonstick pan) over medium heat. Using the oil-soaked paper towel, spread oil evenly over the bottom and sides of the pan. Pour in about 1/4 of the egg mixture and tilt the pan to spread it evenly. When the egg is soft-set, use cooking chopsticks or a fork to roll it up gently to one side of the pan.
Spread more oil on the exposed surface of the pan and pour in more egg mixture, lifting up the cooked roll to let the mixture slide under it. When that layer has cooked, roll it up to the other side of the pan. Repeat until all the egg mixture is used up.
Take the rolled egg out of the pan. Wrap with a sushi-roll mat, squeeze gently and let it rest for a few minutes.
Slice and serve hot or cooled down, optionally with grated daikon radish and more soy sauce.