onsen tamago – the return of the perfect egg
‘The Japanese ability to do the simple things better than anyone else stops short at poaching eggs, absurdly the yolk seemed more cooked than the white rendering it silky and sickly in equal measures’ ‘impossible chopstick fodder’ - an un-named national restaurant critic [second from left] giving us a slapping back in 2008.
The offending eggs were removed from the menu.
In Japan the hot spring [onsen] ryokans are without doubt some of the best places to find the real regional food of Japan. It’s their version of cuisine de terroir, super fresh local ingredients cooked simply with a meticulous attention to detail.
As I sat in one such onsen, at one with the beautiful frozen landscape, naked except for a napkin on my head and with just a flask of hot sake for company, a hunched little old lady reached over my shoulder and pulled a basket of these glimmering white eggs from under my leg. My onsen tamago virginity was about to be broken.
Later that night I got the chance to try one, served simply in a delicate chilled suimono broth with a few fresh shavings of bonito and some local mountain herbs, it was a revelation. Its custardy texture and thick creamy yolk was like nothing I had eaten before, it really was the perfect egg. No trickery, just an total understanding of the ingredient and temperature.
Back in Tokyo they became an obsession, I hunted them down wherever and whenever, in bowls of ramen, in back street noodle bars, dished up at lunchtime in gyu-don bowls or used as a yakitori dip in upmarket gaffs like Gonpachi, I would never pass up the opportunity to see their potential.
I couldn’t wait to try them out in London.
Fortunately since 2008 things in the west have changed, whether it was David Chang dropping them down at Momofuku, Helen Marie Arzak doing the cling film thing in San Sebastian or one of the countless Japanese restaurants that have been doing this for years, the onsen tamago or ‘slow cooked egg’ has finally been accepted and is here to stay.
There are many techniques to re-create this Japanese phenomenon at home; some say cooking in rice cookers, others argue running under a hot tap for an hour, some chefs I know even bath with them.
Restaurants like us have to resort to technology to achieve perfection but don’t be put off trying this at home.
If you have a thermometer a steady temperature just shy of 63 degrees for an hour will never fail. There is an easier way of dropping them into a few inches of boiling water, then immediately removing the pan from heat for 15 minutes will also work – check this .
If you can’t be bothered with all of this then you know where we are.
The Onsen tamago is back and appearing at a yakitori joint near you from November.