Let me describe what you should be eating right now. A bowl of simple, steamed Japanese rice, blanketed in savory custard laced with green onion and pieces of tender chicken. The delicate dashi, enriched with soy sauce and sweet rice wine, soaks down into the rice, so that the flavors merge, and the palette of soft textures melts together. Each bite holds the very essence of comfort. Take your chopsticks, or a spoon, or just go for it face-first.
But maybe oyakodon is not for you. After all, isn’t comfort deeply personal? Isn’t it all about associations with childhood, those culinary touchstones we reach for in search of familiarity, safety, maternal assurance? Why is it, then, that the most comforting food I can think of evokes a place so far from home?
Having left the U.S. in 2015 to seek, if not my fortune, at least some perspective and some delicious food, I found that I settled very quickly, and very comfortably, into new ways of eating. For breakfast in Bangkok, I ate jok, the Thai version of congee, or phat kaphrao, the herbaceous stir-fry served at road-side eateries across the country. In Kyoto, plain rice and miso soup were enough. I sought out boat noodles and durian, natto and nam prik, and refused, often to the irritation of fellow travelers, to regress––as I saw it––to burgers and pizza. The moment never came when I craved food from home. Not once, during my year of traveling and cooking, did I wish for spiceless, hearty vegetable soup, mopped with good crusty bread. That old wisdom, that food calls to our inner children, and at its best brings back the vivid flavors of our mothers’ tables, seemed not to apply.
It’s not that I lack those associations. Whenever I bake a chocolate torte or gateau, I think of Halloween, which, as a kid, always had more to do with cake than with candy. After we got home from trick-or-treating, we’d scatter our winnings on my bedroom floor and run downstairs for the real event––my mother’s birthday cake. I watched my father cutting tall slices of his elaborate, delicious marjolaine, the flavors of toasted hazelnuts and dark chocolate dazzling my taste buds. With these memories fresh on my palette, my own creations are always that much sweeter.
Sometimes these deep connections hide in unexpected places. Once, in a restaurant by the sea in the Irish port town of Kinsale, I burst into tears on tasting an oyster. I lifted the shell to my lips and was, all of a sudden, transported back to a noisy, dockside market in San Francisco, my father carrying me between rows of fish flashing in the morning light. He brought me over to the weathered oysterman, who, smiling, shucked one perfect, cold oyster and placed the rough shell in my tiny hand. And I, without hesitating, slurped it down, to his delight. When I opened my eyes, I was back in Ireland, my cheeks streaming with tears, other diners politely looking the other way.
In any case, oyakodon was definitely not a childhood staple. For one thing, both my parents were pescatarian, as was I until one fateful playdate on which I was served ham-and-cheese on Wonder bread (a double horror). And even in our very secularly Jewish household, a dish whose name translates literally as ‘mother and child bowl’ failed the Kosher aesthetic (though not the law itself). But if you peeked into my parents’ pantry, you might have found some things that pointed in the general direction of Japan. Adzuki beans, brown rice, even seaweed found their way into my childhood diet, not because of any cultural tie, but because my mother was a staunch macrobiotic in my earliest years. (The macrobiotic diet, emphasizing whole grains, low acidity, and balance, was developed by George Ohsawa based on Japanese and Chinese spiritual and medicinal principles.) My mother made my baby food out of sweet potato, brown rice, barley, and sesame seeds. An early treat (before I had ever even heard of sugar) was sweet potato and soy milk muffins with brown rice syrup. Maybe a love for Japanese flavors really was baked in to my early years.
But my affinity for Japanese cuisine is hardly just a function of familiarity. I remember visiting the local used book store with my parents one day when I was around ten, and gravitating to the cookbook section, where rows of well-worn and heavily stained volumes evoked the flavors of India, France, the American South. My hand was drawn to a plain grey spine, thicker than the others, of a book on Japanese cooking. I brought the book home, and, somewhat to the surprise of my parents, read it cover to cover, entranced. The book was called Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, by Shizuo Tsuji. I read before breakfast, when I was most hungry, and the flavors seemed to dance in my mouth as I turned the pages. It wasn’t just the novelty that appealed to me. I was touched, I think, by the precision with which food was prepared, the intimacy of a dish created with the diner’s aesthetic experience in mind. I was absorbed in Tsuji-san’s storytelling, his nostalgia for the old ways, his portrait of a cuisine attuned to the seasons of a distant land. When I chose, in high school, to study Japanese instead of practical Spanish or French, this book was to blame.
So how can I say that you will find a bowl of oyakodon as perfectly comforting as I do? Maybe it won’t conjure the sounds of a morning market in Tokyo, or your earliest memories of your mother’s cooking. But I doubt it matters. The gentle flavors in the bowl don’t need translation. And besides, when we say that great food brings us back to childhood, we’re not just talking about memory. Great cooking has the power to make us truly taste, to experience vividly, in a way inherent to childhood and mostly lost to the adult world. When we taste something perfectly cooked, perfectly fresh, we experience it like new. Maybe the most familiar food, and the totally unknown, can equally make us young again. For me, at least, that’s as much a part of the restorative power of a bowl of oyakodon as the associations with my earliest foods, or of Tsuji-san’s writing. The newness and the familiarity are hard to separate. Maybe neither comes first. Maybe it’s the chicken and the egg.
There’s a unique pleasure to a kitchen tool designed for an exact purpose. But if you already own an oyakodon pan, you are either the proprietor of a donburi-ya, or are in any case not looking for a recipe online. That’s fine. The dish isn’t that fussy, and the implement is not that important. Though typically oyakodon is made one serving at a time, so that the egg sets in the just the right shape to blanket the rice in your bowl, I make mine all at once––the soft custard spreads in the bowls, and this way you aren’t stuck in the kitchen pampering little pieces of chicken as everyone else digs in.
- 2 large eggs
- 3 chicken thighs or 2 whole legs, skinned and boned
- 1/2 onion or 4 green onions
- 1 strip kombu, 2-3 inches
- large handful shaved katsuobushi
- 1 1/2 Tbsp sake
- 1 1/2 Tbsp mirin
- 1 1/2 Tbsp soy sauce
- 1 1/2 tsp sugar
- 3 cups cooked Japanese rice, to serve
- To make dashi, bring 2/3 cup water to a simmer, turn off the heat, then add kombu. Rest for 5 minutes, then add katsuobushi and steep for 15 minutes more. Strain and set aside.
- Crack the eggs into a small bowl and stir.
- Slice chicken into bite-size pieces.
- If using, cut onion into thin slices. If using green onions instead, slice into 1/2-inch pieces on the diagonal.
- Add sake, mirin, soy sauce, and sugar to the reserved dashi and stir to combine.
- Pour the sauce into a medium skillet or frying pan, and add the chicken, and the onion if using (green onion cooks faster, so it should be added a few minutes later). Simmer gently, turning the chicken pieces with chopsticks, until cooked through, 4-5 minutes.
- Pour the egg evenly around the pan, and cover with a lid.
- When the egg is almost set (about 2 minutes), remove from heat, and slide onto individual bowls of steaming hot white rice.