Getting Eggy With It

Getting Eggy With It

It has only been about a decade since New York City’s food culture joined the rest of the world in celebrating the humble egg as anything but fodder for breakfast / brunch.  How it took so long is a matter of debate.  Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the utterly tasteless eggs being shipped from factory farms across the country.  Add to that epicurean crime the baseless vilification of the egg in the 1980s as the prime source for high cholesterol / heart disease and you have an answer as to why one of the great and most versatile proteins was ignored for so long in the food capital of the world. There is hardly a product as heretical as a milk carton of Egg Beaters.

Here in Tokyo, the egg has never been ignored.  It is a cornerstone food of Japanese culture.  Eggs are eaten raw, fried, poached, soft-boiled, hard-boiled and mixed into any number of dishes.  The eggs I purchase at the supermarket have a richer yolk than American eggs — deep yellow, almost tawny.  It is a sexy color and I haven’t yet stopped getting an almost physical thrill when I eat a bowl of ramen and my chopsticks pierce an egg and that golden yolk — cooked to a custard-like state — drips out into my broth.

Chicken farms are clean in Japan.  The cases of food poisoning or salmonella are very rare.  So rare that people here don’t blink an eye when being served chicken sashimi.  In the US, one would be wise to wear a hazmat suit just to take a chicken breast out of its package.  With no fear of dying, raw eggs are standard — served with warm rice, scallion and some sesame oil, mixed into natto (fermented soy beans), served with daikon, sukiyaki, udon, curry.  The finale of a hot pot meal is a raw egg cracked into that hearty broth.

While David Chang of Momofuku fame, gained acclaim in New York for his cooked-in-plastic-wrap, “Arpége Egg,” the soft-boiled egg has long been an art form in Japan.  Whites just set, the yolk warm and runny.  Marinated in broth, tannic in color, the perfect egg comes with ramen and as an essential part of kakuni alongside pork belly and stewed daikon .  They are even sold, pre-cooked, shell still on, in supermarkets (unable to read the packaging, I brought some of these home and had a moment of bugged-out surprise as I cracked the shell).  A common set-piece in Japanese television dramas is steam rising from an open-air Oden stand as the protagonists fight the cold with a long-cooked egg eaten with a dollop of hot mustard.

Warmth. Comfort. Home. The signifier of an egg.  The writer Paul Auster once claimed that Humpty Dumpty represented the state of Man in that we are pure potential, a living being that has “not yet achieved the form that is our destiny.” And yet, as I gaze on that egg bobbing in my ramen bowl, yolk waiting to unite with the rich, porky broth, I see the perfection of Man’s hopes — to realize, through mastery and technique, the full potential of simplicity in harvesting culinary gold.


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