Food & Drink | JAPANESE KITCHEN

Soft-set omurice: From the big screen to the kitchen table

by Makiko Itoh

Contributing Writer

One of the most popular dishes in the yōshoku (European-style Japanese cuisine) canon is omuraisu (rice omelette), often Anglicized as omurice. Its vibrant colors can really brighten up a dull, rainy-season day.

There are several theories on the origins of omurice, but the earliest place to feature a French-style omelette with stir-fried rice (a combination of Chinese and European influences) is the legendary yōshoku restaurant Rengatei, in Ginza, Tokyo, which is widely regarded as the originator of several well-known yōshoku dishes. However, the “rice omelette” first served by Rengatei in 1900 seems to have combined the egg and rice before it was cooked into an omelette.

In 1925, another legendary yōshoku restaurant in Shinsaibashi, Osaka, called Hokkyokusei, introduced an omelette wrapped around ketchup-flavored stir-fried rice, which is closer to one of the current forms of the dish. In either case, the objective was to create an easy-to-digest dish that could be conveniently eaten with a spoon. To this day, both restaurants still serve dishes they call “original omuraisu.”

There's more than one way to cook an egg: Omurice also makes for an adaptable bento box lunch. | MAKIKO ITOH
There’s more than one way to cook an egg: Omurice also makes for an adaptable bento box lunch. | MAKIKO ITOH

Although the name omurice is applied to any dish that combines sauteed rice with an omelette, there are different forms of the dish. The classic variant is where the egg is cooked into a thin, crepe-like omelette that’s wrapped around the rice. This type of omurice is best-suited for situations when it’s consumed some time after it’s made, since the egg is cooked through. On the other hand, the type of omurice that’s most popular in restaurants has a barely set, wobbly omelette on top of the rice, When cut into, the omelette disintegrates and spreads in a most satisfying way.

This type of soft-set omurice was supposedly first proposed by the late movie director Juzo Itami in the early 1980s, and developed by the then-owner and proprietor of Taimeiken, another famous yōshoku restaurant in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. This version of omurice later featured in Itami’s cult food-centric movie “Tampopo,” and is still on Taimeiken’s menu as Tampopo Omuraisu. Other dishes related to omurice include omuchāhan, made with Cantonese-style fried rice, and omusoba, where the rice base is replaced with yakisoba (stir-fried noodles).

Although omurice seems like a simple dish, it’s surprisingly hard to master. Unlike French omelettes, a Japanese-style omelette is not supposed to have even a hint of browning on the surface. It should be yellow throughout, even when it’s cooked through. The soft-set type of omelette is even harder to get right since it should be soft and fluffy, but not liquid inside, like a barely held together mound of scrambled eggs. Having the right type of pan certainly helps. A small (16- to 20-centimeter) frying pan with sloping sides and a nonstick surface is ideal. But don’t be discouraged if it still takes a lot of practice to consistently turn out perfectly yellow omelettes.

This recipe is for a soft-set type of omelette. If you can’t get the omelette part just right, it will still be tasty. I prefer to use ketchup since I think the tangy flavor is a perfect foil for the egg and rice, but you can use ready-made (available in cans or packs) or homemade demi-glace sauce instead.

Soft-set omurice (rice omelette)

Ingredients (serves 1)

For the chicken rice:

• 240 grams (about 1 heaped rice bowl’s worth) warm, cooked rice

• ¼ medium onion, finely chopped

• 50 grams boneless, skinless chicken thighs, diced

• 10 grams butter

• Salt and pepper

• 2 tablespoons ketchup

For the omelette:

• 3 medium eggs

• A pinch of salt

• 10 grams room temperature butter

• Vegetable oil for cooking

• Ketchup or demi-glace sauce

Preparation

To make the chicken rice:

Heat up a 20-centimeter nonstick frying pan and melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion, and saute until transparent. Add the chicken and continue sauteing until the meat changes color.

Add the ketchup to the pan (watch out, since it will splatter a bit) and saute briefly until the ketchup is less liquid. Add the warm rice and stir-fry until the ketchup coats the grains evenly.

Season to taste with salt and pepper, and arrange into a rough oval on a plate. Rinse and wipe the frying pan.

To make the omelette:

Break the eggs into a bowl and add a pinch of salt. Squeeze the butter through your fingers to add it to the egg mixture in small pieces. Beat the eggs lightly using cooking chopsticks or a fork (don’t use a whisk, since you don’t want it to get foamy).

Ready a damp kitchen towel next to the cooking range. Heat up the frying pan over medium heat, and add about 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Wipe out any excess with a wadded-up paper towel.

Pour in the egg mixture, and mix rapidly with cooking chopsticks until it’s very soft-set. If the pan is getting too hot and the egg looks like it’s browning, put the pan briefly on the moistened kitchen towel to cool it down.

When the egg is just soft-set and no longer runny, fold the omelette into thirds and tilt the pan to one side. Carefully flip the omelette on top of the rice. Top with ketchup or demi-glace sauce, and serve immediately, with vegetables on the side.