(Photo from Wiki Media Commons)
The following day, my Tamago training started. I finished the necessary prep. Sushi Rice, Snapper, Hirame, Maguro, and Salmon in an hour and a half. We still had thirty minutes to open. I went to the kitchen and informed Toru my required prep for the day 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," Toru mumbled. "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 said, as he flipped the pages on his notebook. The notebook had handwritten notes, page after page. It had how to make dashi, sushi vinegar, salad dressing, sauces and all.
"Ah! Here it is. I found it," Toru said, with high excitement.
“I am going to show you how to mix the egg first," Toru said, as he walked to and opened the refrigerator door, grabbing 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. 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 the 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.
“I see,” I said.
Toru picked up chopsticks, and started to stir the eggs. He made a rhythmical sound with chopsticks, circling them inside of 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 said. "Just like this, gently move your chopsticks in a circular motion," Toru said.
"After mixing, you want to strain it to remove the egg whites, so that the finished mix will only have the yolk.” Toru picked up a strainer and poured the egg mix through the sieve, into another bowl. The strained mix had a smoother texture and no 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," Toru said.
I picked up a tasting spoon and dipped inside of the bowl. The mix tasted sweet, with the flavor of Bonito flakes in the dashi.
"It's quite—dashi flavored," I said. "Dashi is very predominant."
"Yes, that is why it's called Dashi Maki," Toru said.
Toru grabbed the wooden handle of a square copper Tamago pan from the shelf above the stove. He then placed the pan on a stove, and turned the flame high. He grabbed a bottle of vegetable oil, pouring it halfway into the pan.
“The temperature is the most important and difficult part. You need to constantly adjust the temperature; 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 up the pan evenly," Toru said.
"After a couple of minutes, Toru poured out the oil from the pan. He looked at the pan, egg mix, and looked at me, “You must cook it quickly without burning the egg."
"Okay," I said. "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 do it in less than five minutes. That’s how long you should aim for. Just five minutes," Toru said.
"Okay, five minutes," I concurred.
"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," Toru said.
As he ran the chopsticks on the pan as if to scratch the surface, he made two thin lines of a cooked egg with a sizzling sound.
"You see that? That means the pan is hot enough. Now we are ready to go," Toru said.
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 pot 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, side to side to spread the mix evenly in the pan.
Rhythmically, Toru poured egg mix into the pan, flipped it, rolling the egg in layers, then poured more egg mix, rolling it again. The egg started to harden, forming into a round like an omelet. It reminded me of other sushi chefs making nigiri at a sushi bar, resembling a choreographed dance.
"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 whole egg became the same depth as the pan.
"It’s looking good. We are done," Toru reached out for a plate and placed on it the finished, steaming hot, juicy Tamago.
Now it was my turn to try.
I looked at my notebook and made the egg mix according to the recipe I had just copied.
"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," Toru grinned.
When I started to stir the mix, Toru saw me moving my chopsticks and stopped, "You are moving the chopsticks too hard and too fast."
Yes, do it more gently," Toru said.
I returned to my chopsticks as he instructed and slowed down.
"That's good, "Toru gave me his thumbs up.
I placed the copper pan on the stove until it was hot enough. When I poured the egg, it did not make any sound or hardened.
"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 the pan back on the stove. After two minutes, I placed egg-dipped chopsticks in the pan and ran along the inside. The egg hardened right away.
"The pan is hot enough now," I said.
I poured some egg mix, and tilted the copper pan right and left to cover the entire surface. The egg started to make some bubbles more quickly 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. It was a mistake.
"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 more egg mix, and then I needed to flip the egg. When Toru did it, he flipped the pan using only his wrist. He did not use chopsticks. The movement was similar to an experienced Chinese chef tossing all the ingredients from the wok in the air. I grabbed the wood handle firmly, lifted up the pan from the stove, and then moved my hand backward to flip the egg inside. The egg did not flip as Toru’s did. It just stayed inside of the pan. I tried it again, this time, using more force. The egg flipped only halfway, and it became a lump, instead of a nice roll of cooked egg. Also, by this time, I had spent too much time trying to flip. My egg was starting to get burnt and brown. I rushed and tried to turn down the heat.
“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 away 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 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, not golden yellow. All broken up like someone dropped it on a 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."
My Tamago was sad-looking, not servable to the customers, but, at least, we were able to eat it. That was good. I did not feel so bad. After all, it was just my first attempt. I knew that some chefs would spend years to master a dish.
I practiced it every day for the following thirty days. Toru served my Tamago as makanai every night. Everyone enjoyed my Tamago. My Tamago was looking better and better every day. After two weeks, my Tamago was not a broken lump anymore.
During my practice, Ko told me some techniques he learned in Japan. Every day I made my Tamago, and it began to look better each time. I had better control over the temperature. I was able to flip the pan (or egg inside) better.
After thirty days of training, Toru looked at my Tamago and said, "Who made this Tamago?"
"I did," I said.
"Really?" Toru had a surprised look. "I think this one is almost servable."
"Are you sure?" I said.
"I said almost," Toru laughed.
It took another month before I was allowed to serve my Tamago to customers at Yoshida Sushi. In all, it took me two months to be able to make one. It took another year to achieve a level of perfection, where, now I can say that I can consistently make good quality Tamago.
The main key to making a great Tamago is to control the temperature, which is not something a sushi chef is trained to do. I once heard 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 at least 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 given, and they should come before you learn to make Tamago. A chef who can make a great Tamago is someone who spent years mastering cutting fish, making nigiri, slicing sashimi, and using a Yanagiba.