During my first few weeks in Japan, I struggled with something many other American expats experience: peanut butter withdrawal. Although I’ve mostly overcome that problem, I occasionally find myself pining for other Western foods. For example: cheese, once a refrigerator staple, is now a very rare luxury. However, as my culture shock diminished, my desire for these foods also waned.
Since I’d rather spend my money on gorgeous Japanese produce and sublimely fresh tofu than on overpriced foreign imports, my diet has inevitably changed. As an occasional vegetarian back in the States, it wasn’t difficult to make an affordable and protein-rich meal, thanks to the help of one key ingredient: the egg. Here, too, eggs are an important part of my diet. I often slide a fried egg over vegetables (see the recipe for kinpira gobo, below) to make a satisfying, healthy dinner. Other times, I’ll nestle a soft-boiled egg in a bowl of noodles for a quick lunch, or tuck a few slices of hardboiled egg and spicy daikon sprouts into a mayonnaise-smeared baguette.
Back in the States, I ate eggs much less frequently, mainly because I found them quite bland and rubbery. However, the humble egg is a thing of beauty in Japan, with a rich orange yolk and firm white that holds its shape perfectly when fried. Slow-cooked onsen tamago (“hot spring eggs”) are also a delight, although they are tricky to replicate at home and require impeccably fresh and flavorful product. In my opinion, one of the best, and easiest, ways to showcase stellar eggs is by lightly simmering them in sauce, as is done for many donburi, or rice bowl dishes.
Oyakodon is a donburi that uses Japanese eggs to wonderful effect. The dish’s name literally translates to “parent-child rice bowl”, which is fitting, since it is a favorite of children and adults alike. It is impossibly easy to make: you simply simmer chicken thighs and onions in a sweet, soy-based sauce, and when the chicken is nearly cooked, pour a few lightly beaten eggs over the top. Once the eggs have just set, you spoon the mixture on top of rice, allowing the sauce to permeate the grains. The eggs, which should be as fresh as possible, soak up the sauce’s savory flavors and envelop the chicken in a silky cushion. For a colorful finish, chopped negi, scallions, or herbs are often sprinkled on top. This is Japanese comfort food at its best: simple and flavorful, filling but not too heavy, and pretty hard to screw up. It also happens to be one of my favorite dishes for a quick weeknight supper, and once you try it, I think you’ll understand why.
For the dashi, I usually use the instant-granule type, which I know is full of MSG and other icky things. If you want to make dashi from scratch, go for it. Before you do, check out this helpful and thorough tutorial.
This recipe can be easily adapted for a vegetarian diet. Just swap out the bonito-based dashi for an all-kombu dashi and replace the chicken with a few extra eggs (simmer the onions on their own, then pour all the eggs over at once, as directed below). Of course, once you take out the chicken, the “parent-child” name longer applies. Instead, it’s just tamagodon, or “egg rice bowl”.
3 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into approximately 1-inch pieces
1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup dashi
3 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce
3 tablespoons mirin
3 large, fresh eggs
3-4 cups cooked short-grain white rice
1/4 thinly sliced negi (Japanese leek) or a few scallions (or substitute 1/2 bunch chopped mitsuba)
Shichimi togarashi (7-spice chile powder), for garnish, optional
Beat the eggs in a small bowl and set aside.
Put dashi, soy sauce, and mirin in a sauté pan, and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Add the chicken and onion and simmer until chicken is nearly through.
Pour the eggs evenly over the chicken. Cover to cook egg. When egg is done to your liking (it’s best when still a bit soft), remove the cover.
Divide hot rice between three bowls and top with the chicken and egg, as well as some of the sauce. Garnish with sliced negi or scallions (or mitsuba). Sprinkle with shichimi togarashi, if desired. For a truly complete meal, serve with finely shredded green cabbage and some pickles.