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As connoisseurs of the yolk porn tag on Instagram might have noticed, eggs in Japan are different. Whereas the average American supermarket ovum has a perky, lemon yellow hue, Japanese eggs are a ruddier color, more sunset than sunshine. And eggs have a near ubiquitous presence on the Japanese table. The average Japanese person consumes roughly three hundred and twenty eggs every year—and I’ve definitely done my part to bring up this average.
On Mount Hakone, you can eat egg-flavored soft serve and eggs that have been turned black from being cooked in sulfur springs. Marigold-centered ajitama (seasoned soft-boiled eggs) are an inescapable feature of ramen. Onsen tamago (bath-cooked eggs), appear as a topping in almost every place you encounter donburi. Then there are those Suntory coffee ads where Tommy Lee Jones is being spoon-fed omurice by a painfully chirpy girl in a maid cafe. Who does not secretly desire this experience for themselves? And there is much more than that to covet. Here are three examples of Japanese egg dishes you should be eating:
Breve lattes—those made with half-and-half instead of milk—are decadent: that is a whole lot of hot fat. But in the end, they don’t really taste like much; the coffee is just lost in a bland eddy of hot cream.
Café de l’Ambre in Tokyo’s Ginza district offers a better, richer, more suggestive alternative. Go and order a café oeufs. You’ll get a black coffee with a raw whipped egg yolk swirled into it. Milk products are still mostly water, but an egg yolk is chiefly fat. So when you eliminate all that extra liquid, the coffee achieves a lusciousness that milk cannot reach. The drink turns a burnished ochre and tastes like the liquefied centers of Chinese egg buns and is about as viscous, too. Put another way, it is the difference between thickening a sauce with cornstarch versus thickening it with blood. One is a milquetoast childhood in the suburban Midwest. The other is being wasted in Paris with Henry Miller.
Café de l’Ambre
Japan has devised a number of curry delivery systems beyond the standard curry and rice. Udon and ramen have both been given the curry treatment. Baked curry is the casserole you should have grown up with.
My favorite is the kare-pan, sometimes referred to as a curry donut. They are deep-fried packages of dough that have been filled with a spicy curry. And because I am a pervert that gets a lurid thrill out of popping yolks, my favorite curry donuts are the ones that have a whole egg tucked inside. You can find these in a number of bakeries, but the curry chain Tenma is especially good at them. Through the power of science or just smart technique, the yolk is preserved in its raw, runny state. There is a salacious joy in eating one. Biting into it leads to a satisfying pop as the yolk bursts and gushes into your mouth. Pulling away, with a little golden ooze dripping over your lips, you see the egg sitting there exposed, naked. You wonder how they did this. The taste of what you’ve done lingers in your mouth. You wipe your lips. You bite again.
This is it. Short of just cracking an egg in your mouth straight out of the bird, there is no purer way to eat an egg than this. A breakfast staple in homes across Japan, tamago kake gohan, or TKG, is everything good and wonderful in Japanese cooking: simple ingredients and an ascetic technique applied to something most Americans won’t eat raw.
In its simplest form, TKG consists of an egg cracked over a bowl of hot rice and seasoned with a dash or two of shoyu. Everything is then whipped together with chopsticks until thoroughly ooey and gooey, and that’s it. Breakfast! From here you are free to interpret as you see fit. The goal is to have each grain of rice coated in a golden suspension of yolk. The truly timid might just drop a single yolk in, discarding even the whites. The raw-curious will probably err on the side of one whole egg. But dipping your toes in the water won’t teach you how to swim. Crack open two of those eggs. Go deep. Get wet.
But that’s just the basics. Let’s talk about the Kama Sutra. Here in Japan, there are specially formulated soy sauces just for use in TKG, spiked with extra umami to give your eggs extra love. The old school move is to just hit it with some pure powdered MSG. Furikake (rice seasoning) will give you some new positions to work from. Kimchi, fried shallots, nori: throw it on there. You want katsuobushi? You want sriracha? If you consider yourself an Adonis, why not just shave some black truffles on top? Be as freaky as you want. No one is watching (unless that’s what you’re into).
Now, I’m supposed to tell you that there is a very particular place in a very particular area, in the sprawling gastronomic amusement park that is Tokyo, where you should eat this, but I’m not going to do that. Not for this. Is it out there? Absolutely. But the thing is that there are just so many places. Everywhere from izakayas, to ramen shops, to fast food beef-bowl joints can carry this. The awkward thing about going to these places looking for just this is that it’s something they feature but not what they specialize in. It’s like saying you should go to Le Bernardin just for the bread service. It’s 100 percent special in its own right, but it’s also just the carb section of a much broader picture. The best place to enjoy TKG is, frankly, in your own home. Just go find the best eggs you can, fire up your rice pot, and get cozy with your own bowl of Japanese soul food. There will be no distractions from other foods. No one will judge you for your toppings or how many eggs you use. And the best part of making this at home: there won’t be many dirty dishes. Just dirty thoughts.