To your typical eggs-and-bacon American, there’s not much about tamago gohan that makes sense. The Japanese breakfast is nothing more than a large raw egg cracked over a mound of steamed rice. If you feel like having an extra luxurious morning, you can splash the combination with soy sauce and/or speckle it with a shake or two of sesame seeds. Then, using chopsticks, you vigorously swirl the mixture into a froth and devour.
The first time I heard about tamago gohan was in college. I worked the lunch shift at a sushi bar, where I had the good fortune of joining the owner, Tencho, and my co-worker, a petite Japanese woman named Shoko, for breakfast. Each morning, Shoko would simmer a stockpot of miso soup, I’d wash and cook the rice, and Tencho would slice sashimi.
We’d then sit in the sunny corner of the restaurant, NHK news on the television, the spread before us. I’d hover above my bowl of miso soup and allow the steam to kiss my skin awake. I’d feel the warm rice quiet my grumbling gut. I’d inhale the sensuous slices of salmon, snapper, and yellowtail.
As a white kid who grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania, I had a healthy fear of salmonella. My grandmother used to pull her potato salad from the table the moment a sunbeam struck it. Tamago gohan made me a little nervous (and where was the obligatory pork product?). I'd watch my boss crack, stir, and inhale with the nonchalance associated with pouring a bowl of cereal. Did this man secretly possess an iron-lined stomach? It took Tencho several months of prodding, of him repeating, “You are not man,” before I could accept a bowl of rice topped with a quivering, uncooked egg.
It quickly became one of my favorite comfort meals. Tamago gohan possesses the rib-sticking satisfaction of oatmeal, and the simplicity of sushi. The egg, when incorporated into the rice, relaxes each grain, and, with it, the rest of the morning. Pops of nuttiness, provided by the sesame seeds, punctuate every few bites. The salty spike of the soy sauce balances the grassy brashness of brewed green tea, which you hopefully also have close at hand.
As Shoko taught me, it’s rude to leave even a single grain of rice in the bowl. So I spend the last few moments of breakfast meticulously plucking the remaining morsels with the tips of my chopsticks. I cup the bowl with my hand to feel the warmth of the rice through the ceramic. The process is meditative and, ultimately, lends a sense of closure to the meal.
You probably think I’m overselling tamago gohan. But I still feel different as an eater after finishing a bowl of the stuff then, say, after a Monte Cristo. Even piled-high breakfast sandwiches can't compete with the satisfaction of finishing a simple bowl of egg and rice. And maybe Tencho’s refrain of “you are not man” was less a jab than it was a philosophy. Finishing a bowl of tamago gohan somehow makes you feel more complete.
It’s been nearly a decade since I last ate with Tencho and Shoko, but I still crave our breakfasts—and the bowls of tamago gohan that accompanied them. Occasionally, on a lazy Sunday, I’ll shuffle into the kitchen, rinse a cup or so of rice, steam it in a pot, gently crack an egg over the mixture, and then sit down to reminisce.
1 ½ cups uncooked sushi rice
2 cups water, plus more for rinsing
1 piece dried kombu, about the size of a playing card (optional)
1 large egg
Soy sauce and sesame seeds, to taste
How to Make It
In a large bowl, add the rice and cover with at least two inches of cold water. Moving your hand in a circular motion, gently stir the rice until the water is very cloudy. Then strain the rice through a fine mesh sieve and repeat the process until the water is no longer cloudy when stirring, 4 or 5 more times.
In a rice cooker or pot with a lid, combine the rice, 2 cups water, and the kombu (if using). Cook the rice according to the package instructions.
Transfer about 1 cup of the steamed rice to a serving bowl, top with the egg, soy sauce, and sesame seeds.