“To make a fluffy omelet, make sure you use a lot of butter,” says Yuna, a young Korean woman working in a Tokyo-based diner. It’s one of the last lines of Season 1, Episode 4 of Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, a Netflix series based on Yarō Abe’s manga comic of the same name. Each episode begins with a wide shot of nightfall on the Shinjuku ward, with its bustling crosswalks and stories of fluorescent signs, culminating in a simple cooking lesson at the end.
I grew up an hour north of Manhattan’s Grand Central Station, where, during high school, my standard order at my suburban local, The Croton Colonial, was an all-American breakfast for dinner: three-egg omelet, home fries, toast. Quickly cooked with lots of butter, the exterior of the omelet always came out uneven, with coffee-colored pockmarks where the eggs came in contact with the hottest parts of the pan. Though it wasn’t all that well-made, and I was really only there to be with friends, for whatever reason that omelet filled me to content.
I’ve always found comfort in the arms of a diner, no matter where I am in the world. It’s a familiar place, full of succinctness and a straightforward menu. At the end of last year, I spent a few days in Tokyo, after a quick business trip just before the holidays. In hopes of filling up on stocking stuffers, I woke up way too early to beat the crowds in Ginza’s shopping district. Having been to the city a handful of times, I’ve landed on a jet-lagged morning routine that involves picking up a cold can of Boss Coffee, black as midnight, from 7-Eleven, with an emergency onigiri to throw in my back pocket, just in case I can’t find a bakery with warm curry donuts.
That morning, with my onigiri in pocket (I’d found the donut), I walked past a subdued red awning. I wouldn’t have noticed it if not for “Rengatei” emanating in large block letters. This place had been on my bucket list forever, but sadly it was Sunday, the only day it’s closed. The century-old Rengatei is known as the originator of the Japanese omelet known as omurice, a contraction of the words omu and raisu, or omelet and rice. Since returning from my trip, I’ve been told that Hokkyokusei in Osaka was actually the first restaurant to serve omurice. But in Tokyo, Rengatei is church.
Instead of the typical flat folded style you’d expect from a diner omelet, omurice eggs are scrambled, then blanketed over a fried rice filling. This is opposed to the showy billowing type I first saw in Juzo Itami’s 1987 cult classic, Tampopo. The film fanaticized ramen culture, but also has one of the most memorable food scenes I’ve ever seen. A young boy and homeless man (who is coincidentally a chef) break into a restaurant to make omurice. First, the man cooks a mound of ketchup rice (it’s exactly what it sounds like: pan-fried rice cooked with a protein, often chicken, usually some vegetables, and lots and lots of ketchup) in a sauté pan and inverts it onto a plate, in a long oval shape. Then, he quickly scrambles a few well-beaten eggs in a pan with saibashi (Japanese cooking chopsticks), pulling long curds like mozzarella, and delicately folding them around themselves like burrata, enclosing half of the eggs, which are still nearly raw, in a thin crepe-like cocoon. Gently, he places the pillowy omelet atop the rice and promptly cuts it lengthwise with a sharp knife from tip to tip, exposing a custardy soft-cooked center that oozes out over the plate.
For so long, omurice was something that existed, for me, only in online videos. There’s a YouTube clip of Motokichi Yukimura, the chef in the red hat from Kichi Kichi Omurice in Kyoto, that’s been watched over half a million times. This one's been watched 10 million times. Having contributed dozens of views myself, I’ve picked up on certain idiosyncrasies: Yukimura only flips the fried rice in a pan using his left hand. The mold he uses to shape the rice on the plate is most certainly custom-made. He also abides by straining his beaten eggs before scrambling them for a silkier texture. The way he knocks the handle of the pan with his inner right wrist, shimmying and sealing the omelet on the sloped edge of the pan, is pure magic.
Out of luck with Rengatei that morning, I searched the internet for a place to satisfy my omurice craving (a big thanks to pocket Wi-Fi, arguably the most important tool for any international traveler in Japan), and found Taimeiken, a dark, if not a little dingy, yoshoku (Western-style) restaurant serving burgers and soup in nearby Nihonbashi.
On the long, laminated English menu, I found an array of omurice choices, some with rice on the inside, others presented open-faced. There was an option to add ham, beef, prawns, or demi-glace. But I was undeterred, ordering the namesake, "Tampopo Omelet": a plain omelet, half-cooked and soft inside, on top of ketchup-flavored chicken fried rice, also known by its onomatopoeia, fuwa fuwa toro toro (fluffy and creamy). At the bottom of the page there were three guidelines for eating omurice:
Cut the center of the omelet.
Then, open from the middle.
Put sauce as you like.
What arrived at my table was an unadorned omelet perched atop perched atop the expected, and much anticipated, ketchup rice studded with small cubes of cooked chicken thigh. On the side, a well-worn stainless-steel gravy boat—filled with ketchup. While I don’t remember eating it, I do remember enjoying it, inhaling breakfast for dinner without uttering a word. 20 minutes later, I paid and left fully satisfied.
A day later, and eager for another bite, I asked around to see if anyone had friends or family in Tokyo who might be able to teach me the ways of omurice. Rich Morin, a chef-friend from Boston, messaged me that his wife’s sister might have a friend who could assist. He added, “If you don’t like ketchup, don’t even bother showing up!”
I took the Keio Line to Sakaurajosui, where Morin’s sister-in-law Chiharu met me at the station. We walked back to what I thought would be her apartment, but instead, it was a nursery school decorated with children’s art and toys. There, her sister Chihiro was waiting with her young son and two friends, Ohiaki and Yuri, who were there to interpret. Minutes later, a cooking teacher named Naoko showed up with a plastic container of precooked rice, an assortment of raw ingredients (chicken, onion, carrots), and of course, a carton of eggs.
We went over the steps, which were just the same as I’d studied in the videos: Cook the chicken. Then the vegetables. Add the rice and mix. Naoko emphasized a special little step, making a well in the center of the rice as you would in flour for eggs yolks while making pasta. She added a few tablespoons of ketchup to the center of the pan and reduced it to concentrate the flavor, as if using tomato paste rather than tomato sauce. Naoko then handed me a small spoon of ketchup rice.
“Ketchup-y?” she asked.
“Yes, ketchup-y,” I said.
The other women gathered around for what I’ll refer to as “the scrambling”—gawking, just as I was, at what would be the scene stealer: the omelet. Naoko added a knob of butter to the pan, cooking the egg nearly halfway while constantly making figure eights with her saibashi. In her first attempt, she made an open-faced half-cooked omelet, which shrouded the pile of rice below.
While I don’t remember eating it, I do remember enjoying it, inhaling breakfast for dinner without uttering a word.
In her second attempt, she cooked the eggs about a third of the way before adding them back to the bowl she beat them in, re-scrambling them off the heat, mitigating any overcooking. Naoko told me that cooking the eggs properly is the most difficult part (you can always hide bad rice). But with the flip of a wrist, an ample omelet slid from the pan onto the rice. A surgical slice across its length—and the omurice unfurled like a blooming flower.
On another omurice (we made at least five), she wrote my name in kanji with ketchup on the exterior of the omelet, an informal introduction of me to omurice. Chiharu’s two daughters and Chihiro’s eldest showed up right on time, as if a lunch whistle had been blown. We sampled the many omurice Naoko made, and I found myself surrounded by a table of new friends, eating off of melamine plates with colorful plastic spoons. Naoko told me it takes about 30 times to make great omurice.
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