How I learned to make Tamago for Sushi
"If you want to know how good a sushi restaurant is, you should order Tamago," my mother used to tell me.
My mother's explanations always puzzled me. How could Tamago, a non-fish dish, test a Sushi Chef's skill? Shouldn't it be fish?
"Why Tamago, not fish?" I once asked my mother at a Kaiten Sushi restaurant.
"That's because it's difficult to make a good Tamago," she said.
"That's it? Is that the only reason?" I asked back.
"Yes, that is it," she answered.
Was that the answer I was looking for? Tamago is difficult to make? Maybe, but it still didn’t make any sense to me.
A quarter-century later, I finally came to understand the meaning behind my mother’s wisdom.
I spent over 500 days watching Toshi make Tamago at Rock'n Hollywood Sushi. Every time he did, I wanted to make it too. I wanted to learn, and I wanted Toshi to teach me. So, I waited.
Finally, I thought I waited long enough. I knew Toshi decided my training, but one day I just asked him to teach me how to make Tamago. He said nothing. Not even a ‘no,’ just plain silence. I felt sad and betrayed. Even though I was frustrated, I respected Toshi. He was my teacher. There has to be a reason.
My Tamago training started abruptly at Yoshida Sushi, 150 days after I left Rock'n Hollywood Sushi.
It was a slow Wednesday evening, around 6 PM. Ko, Ryo, and I were standing at the Sushi Bar, waiting for the evening crowd to come in. Toru came out from the kitchen to check on things.
"It's slow tonight, isn't it?" he asked.
"Yup, Toru-san, looks like it's going to be a slow night," Ko replied.
He walked up to my station to look at the Neta Case, "Kaz, it looks like you are doing a lot better than a couple of months ago. All the fish look great," Toru said. "Did you cut them?"
"Yes, not all, but some of them," I said. "I've learned a lot since I came here. I did not know how to cut Tai properly. I did not know how to prep Katsuo before. And I never prepped Kohada."
"You learned a lot," Toru nodded.
"Thanks to Kai and Také-san," I said. "They taught me well. I really like working here. Everyone is nice and teaches me a lot of things I don't know," I added.
"That's fantastic," Toru nodded.
He started to look around the Sushi Bar and noticed a warm, fluffy Tamago that Ko had just made.
"Look at this Tamago. It looks beautiful," Toru said. "Who made it?"
"I did," Ko said.
"I thought so. Ko, you are very talented," Toru’s voice filled with pride.
Toru turned around and looked at me, "Kaz, have you ever made Tamago before?"
"No, I have not," I replied.
"Didn’t they teach you at Rock'n Hollywood Sushi?"
"They never did."
"How long were you there?"
"A year and a half," I said.
"I think it's time you should start new training."
"A new training?" I squinted my
"What do you say if I teach you Tamago?" Toru said.
"Tamago? Really?" I was surprised. In fact, I almost gave up on the idea of learning Tamago at all.
After the way Toshi reacted when I asked him to teach me, I never dared to ask anyone else.
I felt like a kid with a free pass to Disneyland.
"Yes, really? Really, really? That would be great," I exclaimed. I wanted to raise my fists, and swing them in the air, but held back. I didn’t want to offend Toru.
"Okay, then. Let's start your training soon," Toru said. "Ko made one for tonight. So, how about we start tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow?" I asked. "But, Ko's Tamago is enough for tomorrow. There will be plenty," I said.
"That’s silly," he smiled. "Yours won't be servable for at least a month or two."
"Oh, that's right," I said. "So, what are we going to do with all of it? It will be such a waste, even for practice."
"Not to worry. We'll eat it for makanai every night," Toru said gently. "I don't think anyone will complain. It'll be one of the side dishes anyway."
"Thank you, Toru-san," I said, my heart filled with gratitude.
The next day, I finished all of my prep work in an hour and a half. We had thirty minutes before we opened, so I went to the kitchen to tell Toru I was done.
"Good, you finished all your prep, right? Come over here, then," Toru told me. He had a small notebook in his hand.
"This book has some secret recipes," he whispered. "I am trying to find one for Tamago to teach you.
It's a recipe I got from a friend at another restaurant. Where was it...?" Toru flipped through the handwritten pages in his notebook. There were so many recipes in that notebook, dashi broth, sushi vinegar, salad dressing, sauces…, everything.
"Ah! Here it is. I found it," Toru exclaimed.
“I am going to show you how to mix the egg first," he continued, as he walked to the refrigerator and grabbed a carton of eggs.
"You need to put ten eggs, sugar, salt, a small amount of soy sauce, and dashi in a bowl," Toru explained. "Which means you need to start making dashi first. But, look here. I made the dashi already for you. The dashi needs to be cold to mix with eggs. If it’s hot, it will harden the eggs. So, be careful." Toru started to crack the eggs into a bowl.
"Soy sauce is for the flavor, not for the taste. Just add a little bit, like one tablespoonful. When you add too much soy sauce, the color becomes brown. You want to keep it nice and golden yellow," Toru said.
Toru picked chopsticks up and started to stir the eggs. The chopsticks made a rhythmical sound as he circled them inside the bowl.
"When mixing with chopsticks, do it slowly to avoid too much air getting into the mixture. Too much air in the egg makes holes in cooked egg," Toru explained. "Just like this, gently move your chopsticks in a circular motion."
"After mixing, you want to strain it to remove the egg whites, so that the finished mix will only have the yolk.” He picked up a strainer and poured the egg mixture through the sieve and into another bowl. The strained mix had a smoother texture without white spots. Now, we were ready to start cooking.
"Oh, by the way, the recipe is in my book, so write it down and keep it with you," Toru said.
"Thank you," I said. "May I taste the egg mix?"
"Sure, sure, of course," he said.
I picked up a tasting spoon and dipped inside of the bowl. The mixture was sweet with the flavor of the Bonito flakes from the dashi.
"It's quite—dashi flavored," I said. "Dashi is very predominant."
"Yes, that is why it's called Dashi Maki," Toru said.
Then he grabbed the wooden handle of a square copper Tamago pan from the shelf above the stove. He placed the pan on the stove and turned the flame up high. He grabbed a bottle of vegetable oil and poured some into the pan.
“The temperature is the most important and difficult part. You need to adjust the temperature constantly; otherwise, you will burn your eggs.”
Toru was paying close attention to the size of the flame. He kept the pan over the heat for two minutes, until white smoke started to come out from the oil.
“Why do you put oil in the cooper pan first?”
“It will help to heat the pan evenly," Toru said.
"When heating the pan, make sure to tilt it so that the oil touches both sides of the pan. To find out if the pan is hot enough, dip your chopsticks in the egg mix and run the tips on the pan, like this," he continued.
As he ran the chopsticks on the pan as if to scratch the surface, he made two thin lines of cooked egg with a sizzling sound.
"You see that? That means the pan is hot enough. Now we are ready to go," Toru said.
"Okay. Wait, I am going to write all this down. I’ll be right back." I rushed to the Sushi Bar, grabbed my small notebook and a pen, and returned to the kitchen.
"Sorry, now I am ready," I said.
"An experienced chef can cook it in less than five minutes. That’s how long you should aim for. Just five minutes," Toru said.
"Okay, five minutes," I agreed.
Then, Toru started to pour a small amount of egg mixture into the pan. Immediately, the egg mix began to harden, making some bubbles, but most of it was still liquid.
“Speed and heat control. That’s the key. The faster, the better, but when the pan is too hot, you will burn your egg. The Tamago needs to be free from burnt brown spots,” Toru said, as he moved the pan up and down, then side to side to spread the mix evenly.
Rhythmically, Toru poured the egg mixture into the pan, flipped it, rolled the egg in layers, then poured in more of the egg mix, and rolled it again. As the egg started to harden, it formed into a round, like an omelet. The process looked like a choreographed dance, like watching experienced Sushi Chefs make nigiri.
"At this point, the inside of the egg is not completely cooked," Toru said. "We want to keep it half-cooked, so it stays nice and juicy."
Pour, roll, and repeat. Toru must have done it six or seven times until the egg became the same depth as the pan.
"It’s looking good. We are done," Toru reached out for a plate and placed the finished, steaming hot, juicy Tamago on it.
Now it was my turn.
I looked at my notebook and made the egg mix according to the recipe I just wrote down.
"Are you sure it’s fine to copy your friend's recipe?" I asked Toru.
"That's fine. He probably copied it from someone else, too," he smiled.
When I started to stir the mix with my chopsticks, Toru told me to stop, "You are moving the chopsticks too hard and too fast."
Yes, do it more gently," Toru advised.
I returned to my chopsticks and slowed down.
"That's good, "Toru gave me a thumbs up.
I placed the copper pan on the stove, added some oil, and waited until I thought it was hot enough.
When I poured the egg, it didn’t make a sound.
"You forgot to check the temperature," Toru said.
"Oh, I forgot," I said.
I poured out the now half-hardened egg from the pan and put it back onto the stove. After two minutes, I placed egg-dipped chopsticks on the pan and ran them along the inside. The egg hardened right away.
"The pan is hot enough now," I said.
I poured some of the egg mix into the hot pan and tilted it right and left to cover the entire surface. The egg started to bubble quicker than I expected.
"Now the pan is too hot," Toru said.
"What should I do?" I panicked.
"Roll it fast, and then pour more egg mix. Hurry, do it quickly."
When I flipped and rolled the egg to pour more mix, it was burnt and brown.
"What should I do now?" I asked Toru.
"Just keep making. Don't worry, and this is a practice," Toru said. "I am not expecting you to be successful right away."
I poured in more of the egg mix, and then I had to flip it. When Toru did it, he flipped the pan using his wrist; he didn’t need to use chopsticks. The movement was similar to an experienced Chinese chef tossing ingredients from a wok into the air. So, I grabbed the wood handle firmly, lifted the pan from the stove, and then moved my hand backward to flip the egg inside. But the egg didn’t flip; it just stayed in the pan. I tried it again, this time, with more force. This time the egg flipped halfway over and became a lump, not a nice roll of cooked egg. Also, by this time, I had spent entirely too much time trying to complete the flip. Now my egg was starting to brown. I rushed to try and turn the heat down.
“No, keep the heat. You need to practice with high heat. Lowering the heat is not the way to do it. If you need, you can remove the pan from the heat, or raise it up to control the temperature of the pan, and not the heat itself,” Toru said.
There were so many things to pay attention to at the same time: temperature, flipping, moving the pan side-to-side, pouring, and mixing the egg. I was not that good at multitasking.
“When you flip the pan, you only need to use your wrist, not the whole arm. Just quickly flex your wrist, and you should be able to roll your egg,” Toru said.
I poured another mix and tried to flip the egg, but I failed miserably. The whole egg became one broken, deformed lump.
"Oh, no," I said.
My first Tamago came out brown instead of golden yellow like it was supposed to be. It looked like someone dropped it on the floor. Some parts were torn and had holes. It was bulky, dried up, and sad-looking, but it tasted good.
“Hey, everyone, it's dinnertime!” Toru shouted. "Oh, we have an extra dish, Tamago, thanks to Kaz."
We couldn’t serve my first Tamago to customers, but at least we were able to enjoy it, so I didn’t feel so bad. After all, it was only my first try, and chefs can spend years mastering a dish.
I practiced Tamago every day for the next thirty days, and Toru served it for makanai every night. Everyone enjoyed my Tamago, and it looked better and better every day. After just two weeks, it wasn’t a broken lump anymore.
While I practiced, Ko shared techniques with me that he learned in Japan. I had more control over the temperature, and I was able to flip the pan (or egg) better.
After thirty days of training, Toru looked at my Tamago and said, "Who made this Tamago?"
"I did," I said.
"Really?" Toru looked surprised. "I think this one is almost servable."
"Are you sure?" I asked, stunned.
"I said almost," he laughed.
It took another month before I was allowed to serve my Tamago to the customers at Yoshida Sushi. It took another year to achieve a level of perfection. Now, I can say that I can consistently make a good quality Tamago.
I found the most important key to a great Tamago is controlling the temperature, which isn’t something a Sushi Chef is trained to do. I once overheard a French chef talking about how difficult it is to make an omelet. He, too, said the key element was temperature control.
I finally understand why my mother told me about Tamago at a sushi restaurant. To be able to make a great Tamago, a Sushi Chef has to spend several years, if not more, before he is allowed to learn how to make it. It signifies discipline, devotion, and patience. Learning about fish and nigiri is a given, and should always come first. A chef who can make a great Tamago is someone who’s already spent years mastering everything else.
If Toru is asking a question, this should be “Toru asked,” not “Toru said.” #sushi #sushichef