I watched Toshi made Tamago Yaki at Rock ‘n Hollywood Sushi for over a year and a half, yet in the end, he never taught me how to make one. I felt that Toshi taught me how to fillet fish only because the owner told him to teach me how, but not Tamago. He just did not want to teach it to me, or maybe, he thought I was not ready? Either way, the owner never suggested Toshi to teach me how. As it was the case for filleting fish, I felt I was ready to learn. I was eager. Every time Toshi made it, I wanted to try. His Tamago came out really good – fluffy, juicy with dashi, golden yellow in color, not burnt and had great texture, aroma of a freshly cooked sweet egg. I never learned the recipe from Toshi either.
It is said that a true test of a great sushi restaurant is Tamago, so you should order it at the beginning, to find out how it tastes
. The long time ago before I became a sushi chef, I heard that Tamago Yaki is a good test to determine the skill of a sushi chef. Maybe it was my Mom who told me that or I read on somewhere, I don’t remember now. It sounded strange at first because, why would you want to measure sushi chef’s skill with not fish, but with cooked egg?
One explanation I came to learn is that fish was given and that is what sushi chefs learn first. Cleaning, cutting vegetables and then comes rice. You do that for three to five years and then, you move onto fish and after basic fish, you get to make Tamago. So, being able to make good Tamago translates that you’ve been a sushi chef for a while.
Basically, there are two styles of Tamago Yaki at Sushi restaurant in Japan. The first kind is similar to the ones Japanese mothers make at home: egg, sugar, salt and dash of soy sauce. Tamago Yaki is one of the most popular items for Bento Box Lunch. Everyone in Japan, one time or the other, has enjoyed homemade juicy egg custard for the Bento lunch. Tamago Yaki, Egg Custard is slightly different from the one served at Sushi Restaurants. They are called Dashi Maki. Dashi is the traditional stock made from Wakame and Bonito Flakes. The recipe calls for about 1/3 sometimes almost 1/2 the amount of egg mix, which makes it very juicy and at the same time, harder to make. The reason it’s called Maki (to roll) is because of how it’s made. Dashi Maki uses a special rectangular pan made of copper used only to make Tamago. Here is how the cooking procedure works. You pour some egg and dashi mix onto the pan, let is sit for a while until it starts to harden half way, then, you fold the egg about two to three times to form a “roll.” Then, you pour the egg mix again, this time, to make sure it goes beneath the previously rolled half harden egg. Wait for the egg mix to harden, and then roll it again. Repeat until it becomes a desirable thickness.
One day, Toru came up to me and asked how I was doing.
“Hey Kaz, how are things going for you? It’s been about three months since we reopened. You’ve been working really hard and we like working with you. You are a great worker. You get along with everyone, and you are eager to improve.”
“Thank you, Toru-san. I think I am doing OK. I’ve learned a lot since I came here and it’s been really exciting. Half of the fish we use, I did not know how to fillet it before I started working here, all thanks to You and Ko. Ko knows a lot and is a great sushi chef. I like working with him also. He is very nice to me, teaching me a lot.”
“That’s good. I was thinking if you’ve ever made Dashi Maki before?”
“No, I have not. At Rock ‘n Hollywood Sushi, the head chef made it and I never got a chance to make it.”
“OK. I think it’s time you should start making one.”
“Really? I heard it’s tough. I always wanted to make one. I wish they had taught me before I came here. I watched it and could never figure it out. Is it an OK for me to learn? I’d love it if I could do.” Although I was eager, I was nervous at the same time.
“Sure, I think you should. It’s OK. You need to practice it every day for a while. In the beginning, you are going to make lots of mistakes. You will burn the eggs; you will not be able to roll up well. But, that’s OK. So, we will eat your mistake as Makanai every night. That’s not a problem. I am sure everyone will enjoy your mistake and gladly eat it”
“Great, but I am bit nervous.”
“You’ll be just fine,” Toru assured me.
So, my Dashi Maki training got started the following day.
I finished the basic prep, rice, vegetables, and fish, so I went into the back kitchen to ask Toru to start teaching me the egg custard.
“Ok. I am going to show you how to make the egg mix. You need to put together ten eggs, sugar, salt and a small amount of soy sauce and add dashi in a bowl. Soy sauce is for the flavor, not for the taste. Here, we make the dashi already for you. Dashi needs to be cold because if it’s hot, it will harden the eggs. You don’t want that. Use the chopsticks to mix it. Mix it slowly to avoid too much air getting into the mixture. Too much air in the egg makes holes when cooked, so you need to mix it gently but thoroughly. That’s tricky. After you finished mixing, you want to strain it to remove the egg whites so that cooked egg will only have the yellow part.”
Like Toru said, mixing the egg was not so difficult, but tricky.
“When you finish making the egg mix, put the pan on the stove, over medium heat. Fill the pan with oil, about half way. The oil will help to heat up the pan evenly. After a minute or two, drain the oil into the container. The pan goes back to the stove and keeps heating up.”
“The most difficult part is the heat control: Not too hot, not too cold. You want to cook it quickly without burning the egg. A trained chef can do it in less than five minutes. That’s how long you should aim for, when making Dashi Maki. You also want to heat up the pan evenly, so move around the pan side to side and up and down to make sure the pan stays hot consistently. Dip your chopstick in the egg mix and run the tips of the chopsticks on the surface of the pan. As you run the chopsticks, the egg should cook right away, and that is the sign the pan is ready.”
Then, Toru started to pour a small amount of egg mix into the pan. Immediately, the egg mix began to harden, but there was some half hardened mix on top.
“Speed and heat control. That’s the key. The faster the better, but when you have too much heat, you will burn your egg. The egg needs to be without burns and fluffy, texture, no brown, golden yellow. Now, you try it.”
When I tried it the first time, my egg got burnt on the first layer; the second layer came out all mushed up like scrambled egg. I was unable to flip the egg. It’s the same motion a chef would make when he tosses the contents of a flying pan in the air using just one arm.
“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 flipped the pan using only my wrist. The egg did not flip, just stayed on the pan. I tried it again, this time, with more force. The egg flipped kind of half way and it became a lump, instead of a nicely rolled sheet of cooked egg. Also, by the time I rolled the egg, the back side got slightly burnt, becoming brownish. I tried to turn down the heat and Toru-san said, “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.”
“OK,” I said.
My first Tamago Yaki came out, nor “rolled” up and was a bulky lump sum of sad looking scrambled egg: Not juicy, fluffy nor had a nice texture. I felt awful. It tasted like tamago and was good enough for employee meal.
I practiced it every day for the next thirty days and finally, Toru said my tamago started to look, something servable.
I continued to practice for the next month or so and was able to serve my tamago in a couple of months. Since then, I’ve been practicing making it and I am glad I have a chance to learn to make it, because, it really is hard to make a good tamago.
I now understand why ordering Tamago at a sushi restaurant is a good test to find out the skill of a sushi chef: good tamago means the chef has spent a good amount of time practicing a variety of sushi techniques through several years of training. The tamago is a proof of that and his devotion and discipline in addition to the skill and to most Japanese, commitment and discipline come first and more important than the skill itself.