Tenshinhan: A made-in-Japan omelette with Chinese influences

by Makiko Itoh

Contributing Writer

There are three main categories of everyday Japanese food: washoku (traditional Japanese); yōshoku (European-influenced yet Japan-specific cuisine) and chūka (Chinese-influenced Japanese cuisine).

The last category is rather confusing even for Japanese people, who often aren’t aware which Chinese-influenced dishes exist only in Japan and which are authentically Chinese, particularly since both categories are very popular. A general rule of thumb is to call direct-from-China dishes by their regions (in Japan, the four major Chinese regional cuisines are considered to be from Canton, Beijing, Shanghai and Sichuan) or collectively as Chūgoku (China) cuisine.

China has had a profound influence on Japan in many ways for centuries, but most of the chūka dishes that we enjoy now were introduced during the 19th and 20th centuries. In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when the country opened its ports to international trade, an influx of Chinese people came to work in Japan. Many of them settled the port towns of Yokohama and Kobe, and some eventually opened up restaurants, although they initially mainly catered to other Chinese immigrants and expatriates.

The First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) forced many Chinese people to leave Japan, but some did remain. Since Chinese restaurant owners had to cater to increasing numbers of Japanese customers, they started to adapt and change their recipes to Japanese tastes. Chinese-style cuisine was also increasingly embraced by Japanese chefs, especially after World War II, when the powerful gas burners needed to stir-fry became more available.

Keep an eye on the heat: A soft-set egg is key to making the perfect tenshinhan omelette. | GETTY IMAGES
Keep an eye on the heat: A soft-set egg is key to making the perfect tenshinhan omelette. | GETTY IMAGES

Today, classic chūka dishes include ramen; Japanese gyōza and shūmai dumplings; the milder Japanese take on māpō dōfu (tofu in spicy Sichuan-style sauce); hiyashi chūka (chilled ramen noodles with toppings); ebi mayo (shrimp with mayonnaise); ebi chiri (shrimp with sweet chili sauce); and much more.

This recipe is for a well-known dish with conflicting origin stories. Tenshinhan or tenshindon (han means rice, and a don is a bowl of rice with toppings) is named after the city of Tianjin (Tenshin in Japanese) in northeastern China, but it was actually first served in Japan at one of two restaurants — either a Tokyo restaurant called Rairaiken, or an Osaka one called Taishoken. In either case, tenshinhan may have been invented by returnee soldiers who had been held prisoner in the Tianjin area at the end of World War II.

The base omelette is similar to kanitama, egg foo young or other Chinese egg dishes with various additions, but tenshinhan is also covered with a slightly thickened, translucent sweet-and-savory an sauce. Ankake, dishes served with this thickened an sauce, became popular from the late Edo Period (1603-1868) onwards, so it may be that tenshinhan combines the Chinese omelette with Edo-style ankake.

Tenshinhan is a really quick and easy everyday dish — it’s basically an omelette on rice with sauce. It tastes better with fresh crabmeat, but I’ve kept it economical by using kanikama (imitation crabmeat). You can also use shrimp or ground chicken instead, as well as any leftover vegetables you have in the refrigerator for the filling. The an sauce is variable too: you can leave out the vinegar or use dashi stock instead of chicken stock.

Tenshinhan (omelette on rice with an sauce)

Prep: 5 minutes; cooking: 15 minutes

Ingredients (serves 2)

For the filling:

• ½ medium carrot, peeled and finely shredded

• 4 fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced

• The white part of 1 negi (green onion), finely shredded

• 6 imitation crab sticks or 90 grams fresh or canned crabmeat

For the sauce:

• 300 milliliters water

• 2 teaspoons chicken stock powder (preferably Chinese-style)

• 1 tablespoon soy sauce

• 1½ tablespoons rice vinegar

• 1 tablespoon sake

• 1 teaspoon oyster sauce

• 2 tablespoons katakuriko (potato starch) or cornstarch, dissolved in 4 tablespoons of water

For the omelette:

• 4 extra-large or 6 medium to large eggs

• A pinch of salt

• A pinch of pepper

• 2 bowls of hot plain rice

• Chopped negi for garnish

• Oil for cooking


Heat up a small frying pan with a little oil and add the carrot and mushrooms. Stir-fry until wilted, then add the crab sticks or crabmeat. Combine, then remove from the pan.

Put the sauce ingredients, except for the starch dissolved in water, in a small pan. Heat until bubbling, then stir in the starch water. Cook until the liquid is translucent.

Prepare two bowls or deep soup plates with a mound of rice in each.

Beat 2 to 3 eggs in a bowl with a pinch of salt and pepper. Add ½ of the filling and mix. Heat up the frying pan with about ½ tablespoon oil. Cook the egg while stirring until just soft-set. Turn the omelette out on top of one of the rice mounds. Repeat with the rest of the eggs and filling for the other portion.

To serve

Spoon the sauce over the omelettes, sprinkle with green onion and serve. This is best eaten with a spoon.

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