When I visited Japan, I did what many tourists do on their first bleary-eyed mornings in the Land of the Rising Sun: I went to the Tsukiji Fish Market. The inner market is famous for its pre-dawn tuna auction, but what fewer people talk about is the outer market: the ring of pickle shops, kitchenware stands, and produce vendors that lines the perimeter of the fish market itself. It’s where many locals grab a quick breakfast on the go. Street food in general isn’t huge in Tokyo, but the outer market has a handful of vendors hawking food-to-go, including several tamagoyaki stalls, which I quickly zeroed in on.
Tamagoyaki is a Japanese omelet that’s typically made by rolling several thin layers of egg (mixed with soy, mirin, sugar, and sometimes dashi, in which case it’s called dashimaki) on top of each other while they cook in a small rectangular pan designated solely for this purpose. They can skew savory or sweet, and some of the vendors near Tsukiji bolster theirs with seafood or seaweed, though plain is the most common. Neatly pressed yellow slices of tamagoyaki show up all over the place in Japanese cuisine: in bento boxes, sushi restaurants (in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, an apprentice goes through ten years of preparation before being allowed to make it), and sometimes with breakfast (where it’s admittedly not the start of the show—that would be grilled fish and pickles—but plays a valuable supporting role).
I’d had tamagoyaki before, but never seen it made, and I stood rapt while the vendors tilted their makiyakinabe pans over an open flame, carefully sending thin streams of egg batter across the surface, then using oversized chopsticks to elegantly roll each cooked layer into a neat rectangle. I’m not squeamish about eating mackerel for breakfast, but in those first early-morning hours at Tsukiji, I could think of nothing I wanted more than tamagoyaki. Served hot, tamagoyaki almost melts in your mouth; when cool or at room temperature, the eggs settle into themselves, becoming dense, soft, and deeply satisfying. I wolfed down an entire tray of the stuff on the street, like a lady.
Tamagoyaki isn’t hard to find in Japanese restaurants where I live, in New York, but too many versions are chalky and dry, lacking the silky-smooth texture and nuanced salty-sweet flavor I’d fallen hard for in Japan. I wanted to make my own, but I don’t have room in my tiny apartment for single-use kitchen items like makiyakinabe pans; plus, I doubt my abilities to roll such perfect and neat little egg layers. I needed to find another way.
This is where Yuji Haraguchi steps in. The owner of Okonomi restaurant and the newly opened Osakana fish market in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Haraguchi has been serving traditional Japanese breakfasts to New Yorkers since Okonomi opened in 2014. Haraguchi’s ichiju-sansai set breakfast involves grilled fish (all domestic), rice, pickles, miso soup, vegetables, and, most importantly to me, a small cube of tamagoyaki. Okonomi’s tamagoyaki tastes different—fresher, softer, lighter—than anyone else’s I’d eaten here, and it looks different, too: a perfect, shiny-smooth cube of yellow egg cake, with a burnished brown top, and no folded egg layers in sight. I had to find out how he made it.
Turns out, Haraguchi had many of the same concerns as me when developing his tamagoyaki recipe: namely, a lack of space and a lack of the desire to spend hours carefully rolling thin sheets of egg just so (“The traditional technique is hard!”). He also has a lack of open flame in his restaurant; everything at Okonomi is cooked on an induction burner or in the convection oven. So he developed a technique for baked tamagoyaki that’s simpler, lighter, and arguably tastier than the traditional stovetop method.
Haraguchi’s method is to blend together eggs with sugar, white soy sauce, dashi, mirin and soy milk creamer, then pour the mixture into a baking sheet and cook it in the oven. “When we first made it, I have to say, it was really bland,” says Okonomi’s head chef, JT Vuong. “But we’ve found the perfect amount of sugar and salt, while still keeping the flavor straightforward.”White soy sauce is less fermented (and therefore lighter in color), but saltier-tasting than regular brown, and the soy milk adds richness and creaminess, albeit to subtle effect. “Heavy cream and dairy in general aren’t a big part of Japanese cuisine,” says Haraguchi, who wanted to develop a dairy-free recipe to serve alongside his seafood-heavy breakfast spread. “Soy milk doesn’t overpower the flavor profile.” The finished product is a tamagoyaki that’s at once creamy, custardy, delicate, and delicious. Here’s how to make it at home.
Recipe adapted from Okonomi in Brooklyn. Makes one 9 x 9-inch cake.
All ingredients should be chilled prior to mixing.
In a large mixing bowl or container, combine all ingredients and blend thoroughly, either using an immersion blender or whisking well by hand. Try to avoid incorporating too much air into the mixture, as it will lead to unattractive bubbles in the tamagoyaki.
Chill the mixture overnight in the refrigerator to allow flavors to meld.
The next day, preheat the oven to 300°F and remove the egg mixture from the refrigerator. Line a 9 x 9-inch baking sheet with walls at least ¼ inch high with parchment paper. Gently re-whisk the eggs for a few seconds to re-incorporate all ingredients, then pour the eggs through a strainer into the baking sheet.
Bake at 300°F for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 200°F and continue baking for 1 hour and 15 minutes. The tamagoyaki is done when it’s set along the edges and still jiggling ever-so-slightly in the center, and the top has become an even golden brown color.
Allow tamagoyaki to cool at room temperature, then cut into square or rectangular slices using the tip of a very sharp knife. The remaining tamagoyaki can be sealed in plastic wrap in the refrigerator for 2-3 days.