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Omu-rice: How do you like your eggs... and ketchup?

October 24, 2016

In my very first few weeks in Japan, when strolling dazedly through the busy streets, I would find my eyes drawn to flashes of yellow-and-red in shop windows.

Pikachu?! I gasped.

No. Not this time. Although bearing a resemblance - at least, in color - to the famous Pokémon, these small, cute things largely came without smiley faces.

These were plastic food models outside restaurants. And I was drawn to the hypnotically elliptical omu-rice with their starkly contrasting colors. Just what were they? Why so many different kinds? Could I find them all? And forget Pokémon - could I be an Omu-rice Master?

Armed with a hunger for answers, as well as for eggs, I set out on an omu-rice quest...

Composed of the French “omelet” and the English “rice”, the portmanteau “omu-rice” is simple as it sounds: in its traditional form, it consists of rice fried with ketchup, chicken and vegetables, wrapped in an omelet and topped with more ketchup.

Bizarre though this may seem to the uninitiated, omu-rice has become an emblem of “yoshoku”, Japanese-style Western food, as well as a staple of home cooking. For many in Japan, it's a dish infused with nostalgia.

There are several legends as to its roots. Some say that a “rice omelet” originated at the turn of the twentieth century from Rengatei, an old-style dining room in the area of Ginza in eastern Tokyo. Designed as a simple dish able to be eaten quickly with one hand by kitchen workers, it migrated onto the menu.

Others say the omu-rice in its modern form was born in Hokkyokusei, another Western-style eatery in Osaka in 1925. The chef apparently felt sorry for a customer with a weak stomach who always ordered eggs and rice separately, and so combined them into a dazzling new yellow-and-red form.

Regardless of its origins, the omu-rice has evolved a lot since its humble beginnings. For example, the omelet may come in one of three main forms. The original style is a thin omelet that acts as a “wrapping” around the rice. Another kind is a slightly runnier omelet that is placed as a “cover” over the rice. Being easiest to make, these are the versions most often cooked up at home.

So that's where I began my mission to track down omu-rice - at home. Just not my own.

The Hotta family - Naoyuki, Keiko and 5-year-old Ayaka - very kindly invited me to see how they make omu-rice. It's a simple dish that the whole family can help out with.

Whilst Mum Keiko fried the rice, Dad Naoyuki helped Ayaka beat the eggs. Before long a bowl-shaped omu-rice with a cover topping was ready for Ayaka to decorate with ketchup. And that is definitely the most fun part. Omu-rice can be as cute as you want it to be.

Venturing out to restaurants, you'll see a different kind of omelet that is perhaps the most popular - a thicker, fluffier version. This has a light, well-aerated outside and soft, almost runny curls of egg in the middle.

It's known as “fuwatoro” - a combination of the Japanese word “fuwafuwa” meaning “soft and fluffy” and “torotoro” meaning “sticky” or “syrupy”.

This style was popularized by Japanese actor and director Juzo Itami, through his 1985 movie Tanpopo. In one scene, a vagabond breaks into Taimeiken, a Western-style eatery in Nihonbashi Tokyo, and cooks an omu-rice. He deftly flicks the omelet in the pan to create a fuwatoro parcel that he places on top of rice and slices open so it unfurls to completely cover the rice.

This has become the signature dish at the store, and third-generation manager Hiroshi Modegi has made countless so-called “tanpopo omu-rice” over the past 30 years.

But just as the omelets have evolved, so have the toppings. Modegi now serves an upscale version doused in demi-glace sauce and topped with a tender chunk of beef.

Other restaurants have also eschewed ketchup in favor of a béchamel or curry, or even something more sophisticated.

For example, Shiseido Parlour, which sticks firmly to the traditional “wrapping” form of omelet, tops their dish with fond de volaille-base (chicken stock) tomato sauce, a recipe that has remained unchanged since the store’s opening in 1928. Intriguingly, it wasn’t originally on their menu but on a secret menu - if ordered, it would appear. It remained hidden until 1975 where increasing numbers of customers and its popularity with children saw it make the official list.

Indeed, it has become the acid test for trainee chefs at the restaurant: they must learn to master omu-rice before anything else. Although this is now a well-established tradition, the store claims that technically omu-rice is one of the most difficult items to cook - from heating the eggs correctly so they don’t become hard, to neatly wrapping the chicken rice in the omelet. Moreover, at 8000 servings a year, omu-rice is the most popular item on the menu, and so a lot of practice is absolutely necessary!

Served with four different pickles and on a plate that echoes its beautiful elliptical shape, their omu-rice is an example of how many restaurants in Japan like to perfect even the simplest thing to the extreme - a value known as “kodawari”.

Specialty shops that only serve omu-rice have sprung up across Japan. These are often particularly creative with their menus. For example, chain store Tamago to Watashi serves a fuwatoro soufflé omelet, which in true soufflé style contains cheese, and sits atop tomato risotto.

Regional variations have also appeared. One of the local soul foods of Kanazawa in western Japan is “hanton rice”, which is an omu-rice with fried white fish, and topped with tartar sauce as well as ketchup.

Recent creations aside, for many, omu-rice is inseparable from its ketchup beginnings and the resultant tomato-based art. The practice of writing on omelets has spread beyond home-cooking fun. Maid cafes, where young girls in full costume serve particularly cute dishes, often have omu-rice on the menu. Lucky customers can receive “moe omu” - literally “an infatuation omelet” where a maid brings out a large bottle of ketchup and draws on top of the omelet.

So I ordered my very own “moe omu”. And whilst I passed on hearts and kisses, I realized I could become a Pokémon Master and an Omu-rice Master at the same time. Here is my very own Pikachu omu-rice. Sort of.

Of course, the omu-rice quest does not end there: with so many other varieties of omu-rice to be discovered, and with the ability to design your own, the possibilities are endless.

The deceptively simple omu-rice gives a whole new meaning to the question - “How do you like your eggs?”

Text and photos: Phoebe Amoroso

Address: 3-5-16 Ginza, Chuo City, Tokyo 104-0061
Some English spoken / English menu available

Hokkyokusei Shinsaibashi Honten
Address: 2-7-27 Nishishinsaibashi, Chuo-ku, Osaka 542-0086
Some English spoken/ English menu available

Address: 1-12-10 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 100-6701
Some English spoken / English menu available

Shiseido Parlour
Address: Tokyo Ginza Shiseido Building, 8-8-3 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
English OK / English menu available

Tamago to Watashi Shibuya Hachibangaiten
Address: Shibuya DKB building 6F, Udagawa-cho 23-3, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0042
No English spoken / English menu available