eggscellent lunch: tamago donburi

One of my favorite comfort foods isn’t remotely from childhood.  It’s an adult dish, and one that evokes long days, lonely nights, and a cold, tiny studio apartment far away in Tokyo, long ago in the days before internet.

Living in Ayase, a small outpost at the end of the Chiyoda line, northeast of everything fashionable in Tokyo, was gloomy.  My short walk to the station in the morning was an obstacle course of ramen vomit, pachinko parlor neon, and depressing little shops trying to hold their own.  Across the tracks, I could see advertising posters of Korean and Thai girls and boy-girls pasted on the exterior walls of places that would advertise such things.  It was like Lost in Translation without the luxury hotel or falling in love.

My station was not too far from my work downtown, but I was working very long hours, and without a Japanese wife at home to cook me dinner, I could never make it to the market to buy food before it closed.  My miniature refrigerator-cum-freezer tended to thaw frozen things and freeze fresh ones, so I couldn’t shop for more than a couple of days.  The restaurants were too expensive, lackluster, and depressing for regular single dining. And because I was working at an American firm, I wasn’t regularly coerced into the ramen-vomit-inducing social requirement of after-work drinking with my colleagues and clients.

So I often found myself in the only shopping venue that was open when I’d get home around 9 p.m., the only place that could mete out a little alimentary comfort via a plastic dish and a microwave.  The corner convenience store.

More often than not, comfort came to me in the form of a loose, saucy omelette over rice, offered for sale in the refrigerated case alongside other slim pickin’s available that late.  I liked the idea of donburi, because it would give me both main dish and rice in a casserole-ish form, but I didn’t find the more popular version of this dish, oyako donburi, appetizing because I didn’t trust the chicken in it.  So I often ate plain tamago donburi, egg-and-rice bowl, relishing the little kick the artificially dyed red strands of pickled ginger on the side provided to the sweet, salty omelette.

When I came back to the States, I found that I actually missed tamago donburi, and quickly settled into a routine of making it whenever I felt exhausted or blue.  I still make it for lunch on grey, rainy days in Oregon when I need a little kick.  Perhaps it can help you as it has helped me.

Tamago donburi is not a pretty dish.  It’s rather monochromatic, actually, since the onions soak up the brown stock, and the eggs darken from the sauce.  Therefore, it’s essential to sprinkle some jaunty green onions, or fresh spring garden chives (as you see above) on top.  I like a soupy sauce for my donburi, so you might want to reduce the volume of dashi stock.  I never make my own dashi, using no more than a quarter teaspoon of powdered dashi bouillon for just under 2 cups of water, but you should make your own with katsuo flakes and kelp.  It would be tastier.  The only necessity is to make the stock relatively weak, so as not to overpower the egg.  One can also add mushrooms, cabbage, or myriad vegetable fillers to the omelette, as restaurants do, to make it prettier.  I don’t bother.

Tamago Donburi

Serves 1

2 cups cooked Japanese short-grain rice
1.5 cups dashi (made with a healthy sprinkle of dashi-no-moto powder and water; substitute chicken or vegetable stock)
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sake
2 teaspoons sugar
a small piece of very thinly sliced white or yellow onion (maybe 1/4 cup?)
1 tablespoon chopped pickled ginger or 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
3 eggs
1 green onion or an equivalent amount of chives, thinly sliced, for garnish

Cook your rice ahead of time.  When rice is finished, proceed with the donburi.  Slice onion and chop ginger.  In a small saucepan, combine dashi, soy sauce, sake, and sugar, and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Add onion slices and ginger and reduce heat to a simmer.  Let simmer for 5 minutes.  As the sauce is simmering, break and lightly beat three eggs in a small bowl.  Finely slice the green onion or chive garnish and set aside.  Scoop out rice in a nice mound in a medium-sized bowl (a Japanese donburi bowl is perfect, of course, but one can use a deep vegetable serving bowl or pasta bowl).

Add eggs to saucepan.  Do not mix.  They will set in about 1 minute. When they look cooked through, and they have formed an omelette-like mass in the center of the pot, carefully pour the contents of the pot atop the bowl of rice you have prepared.  Sprinkle with reserved green onions and serve immediately.

Repeat for multiple servings.