What You Can Learn About Eggs from the Japanese
Whether served full -cooked or entirely raw, eggs are popular in Japan—especially for breakfast. And once you start delving deep into Japanese cuisine, you'll realize there are dozens of Japanese egg recipes to try. Some of the recipes are relatively easy to make. (Tamago gohan, which just requires a raw egg, steaming rice, and soy sauce, comes to mind.) But other Japanese egg dishes are fairly traditional and require deep understanding of cooking technique, and lots of patience, to get it right. Famed Japanese sushi chef Jiro Ono, for example, had his apprentice make a Japanese egg omelet over 200 times before it was deemed good enough to serve.
That kind of rigor is required to prepare many of these Japanese eggs dishes properly, and at Haru, the New York City-based restaurant and sushi bar that's been around for 20 years, those techniques are honored. "We do a lot of traditional things here at Haru," says executive chef Ben Dodaro. "That's kind of what's kept us popular, I think." For weekend brunch, served at their location in Gramercy, Dodaro prepares three different types of classic Japanese egg dishes—egg castella, tamago, and chawan mushi.
But seriousness in the kitchen doesn't mean the dishes have to be stodgy, and Dodaro isn't afraid to add a playful twist to these classic Japanese egg recipes. Dodaro walked me through three Haru's brunch options, which he called his "brainchildren," that blend traditional Japanese egg preparations with modern American brunch.
An egg castella is "almost like a sponge cake," explains Dodaro, except this sponge cake is made with eggs, puréed shrimp, boiled sake, and sugar, and can be served with savory dishes. To make it, "You fold in eggs yolks, then you fold in flour. Then you mix it with whipped eggs whites," to give it some lift and that airy texture, says Dodaro. "Then you bake it."
The taste is sweet and light, with a little bit of salt from the shrimp, and when Dodaro tasted it for the he thought it would be a great component to a Japanese-inspired breakfast sandwich of sorts. "It just seemed natural to put it in a steamed bun—kind of like a bacon, egg, and cheese." Chasu pork or arabiki sausage, which kind of tastes like a high-end hot dog, take the place of the bacon, and scallion cream cheese is used instead of a slice of American cheese. "More approachable, but it's all a Japanese flavor profile, little more interesting than just a fried egg."
"Tamago is a Japanese sweet omelet, so it's usually eggs, lightly sweetened with sugar and mixed with a little bit of dashi," Dodaro says. It's cooked in a square pan over low heat, and keeps getting folded over and over until it forms an omelet. "It's very soft, very delicate. It shouldn't really have any brown on it," because that browning can give a slight bitterness. "It's more in the style of a traditional, French omelet," Dodaro says, "where there's absolutely no color whatsoever."
Dodaro plays with those French flavors at Haru, by putting the tomago inside a brunch roll with spicy salmon and avocado—a play on a classic flavor combination for a French omelet. And though it might seem strange to put eggs in sushi, it's not uncommon; tamago is often served over sushi rice and wrapped with seaweed, or nori. This roll is topped with a bacon crumble, which is slightly more untraditional, but adds a nice texture to the soft sushi roll and definitely lets you know that you're eating a brunch roll.
Chawan mushi is an egg custard that's somehow both the densest and the sofest of the three egg dishes. When I ask him to describe the texture, Dodaro grabs the bowl and shakes it, making the whole shrimp-topped concoction jiggle. "It's like a pudding, a custard. It's very smooth, very silky." The ingredients are fairly straightforward—lightly beaten eggs and dashi—but the technique is what makes this dish tricky to master. To get that signature texture, you have to makes sure there's no air in the mixture and then steam it at a low temperature; at Haru, the cooking happens at 185ºF for 45 minutes. "When you cook it at a lower temperature, it stays nice and silky and smooth, and it basically just takes it to where the egg is set so you get that real velvety kind of texture."
Of the three egg dishes served at Haru, the chawan mushi is by far the most traditional, though it's not without a twist. "Traditionally, it's served in a teacup, so we do a slightly larger portion," says Dodaro. "You could share it if you wanted to, for two people." But it's so light and delicious that you could certainly polish off the whole bowl without sharing a bite.