This summer, I spent a good chunk of time in Osaka, Japan, under the pretense of a research trip, though it was mostly to shut myself up for fifteen seconds, which, more often than not, meant eating nearly everything in sight. I’d told my people back in Texas that I had flown out to finish a novel. Once I made it to Japan, I napped on friends’ couches and made faces at their toddlers, and those friends would ask why I wasn’t writing. But they didn’t ask too many times. So we’d steam at indoor baths, rolling immediately into evenings of beer, and, when the regulars at the neighborhood izakaya would ask what my book was about, assuming it would be some sort of technical manual or travel guide, I told them it was a love story.
A love of what? they’d ask.
Of food, I said, which was true, more or less.
Then they’d pat me on the back and spot me another Sapporo.
It wasn’t my first time in the country. I spoke Japanese just adequately enough not to be a burden on everyone around me. But early one morning, after a long night out, once the local train line had started up again, a buddy of mine, leaning halfway out of his seat, asked me what I wanted while I was in town—what I really wanted. And I, leaning even farther out of my seat, told him that I wanted something comforting. Something fucking delicious.
So he took me out for omurice. It all but rewired my brain.
Omurice is a cross between an omelette and Japanese fried rice. The eggs are cooked until they’ve thickened, draped over rice, and then covered with a filling, which can vary from chicken to onions or anything at all, really. The scramble is wholesome, creamy, cooked until it’s not quite set. It is nearly as thin as a crêpe and is served with savory sauce to give it flair. You can ladle some tomato sauce over the eggs, or you can set it on the side. Or, if you’d like something heartier, a demi-glace works. Or a creamy mushroom gravy. Or, if you’re lucky, the chef will blanket your omurice with sliced yellow cheese. But if you’re anything like me—an actual monster—you’ll err toward a confluence of sauces, and also some shichimi, and also another beer, thanks.
Omurice is found in diners all over Japan, particularly the ones specializing in yōshoku— Western-style Japanese cuisine—along with staples like naporitan (a spaghetti dish), korokke (a cousin of the croquette), and curry rice, in all its delicious forms. Yōshoku evolved around the end of the nineteenth century, during the Meiji era. But omurice is also a pretty easy meal to re-create at home—one to cook for someone you love, or one that you cook with love, or one that you’ll eat knowing that the love is imminent. Even in a country oversaturated with perfect recipes, omurice is a perfect recipe; the lovely thing about it is how it leaves room for variations. You’ve got the symphony as it’s composed, and then you have the changes from orchestra to orchestra, with slight adjustments making for enormous tremors in the eating experience. I tasted endless variations: in Osaka, in a tiny stall behind some love motels in Tennoji, a ward in central Osaka, and in this one café around Shinodayama Station, or, once, on a day trip to Kyoto, in a leaning cabin just beside Mount Inari.
One afternoon, after biking around Osaka with a buddy for entirely too long, we settled, soaked from the humidity, into a diner in Nakazakicho. Our waitress asked where I was from, first in Japanese and then in English. When I said Houston, she smiled. She said that she was Filipino and name-dropped a few restaurants in my neighborhood. She set a plate in front of my friend and me, adding that she liked omurice, too. Afterward, I told my friend that the foreigners in Osaka seemed to be more numerous than on my last visit. He smiled, all but calling me a dumbass, because, of course, there could be nothing less strange than two people bonding over a dish that unites them in a place far from home.
Coming Back to Ackee and Salt Fish, Jamaica’s National Dish
May I Recommend That You Grow Your Own Corn?
Humanity’s Eternal Quest for a Better Way of Peeling Garlic
Remembering Maida Heatter, a Charmingly Shameless Self-Promoter Who Became a Legend of Desserts
Bread Pudding and the Comforts of Queer Baking
Chhonk, the Indian Spice Infusion That Enlivens Most Anything
This motif carried on through every day that followed: when other foreigners saw me eating around Osaka, they’d try English first, and then Japanese, and then English again. Sometimes friends would speak for me. Other times, I’d speak for myself. Two different people asked me if I was from New Delhi (and frowned when I said I was American). Someone else guessed Toronto (and frowned when I said I was American). One dude, with his daughter, told me that they were from Kazakhstan and asked me if I knew of it, shaking my hand when I said that I did (and releasing it immediately when I said that I was American, before patting me on the back and asking, Isn’t it very dangerous for black people there?). That night, when I told a friend about the conversation, she grinned. She said that the kindness extended to me as a non-native Japanese speaker almost certainly would not have been extended to a foreign visitor in large swathes of the States.
A few weeks later, at a gay bar in the Doyama district, a group of older dudes egged me into various drinking games. In one, we’d try our hand at counting backward. When you fucked up, you drank. Obviously, I got drunk. A typhoon skirted Osaka’s edges, but we didn’t much care. I tried explaining to my new friends that their city wasn’t entirely unlike New Orleans, and, when they asked why, I told them that I couldn’t put my finger on it just yet. One guy said that he’d visited the French Quarter once and suggested that it was all of the wasted pedestrians wandering around Dōtonbori. Another guy noted the food, which is so thoroughly a part of both cities. A third guy waved us away, swearing that, if we all thought it was true, the why didn’t matter. But he added that my Japanese was very good (it isn’t) and that none of us needed to work the next morning (we didn’t), so we ought to take advantage of the moment. He asked us if we’d eaten. The only obvious remedy was a diner around the corner, one with omurice—it was only a short walk away.
Much is said about the simplicity of Japanese cuisine, which eschews strong spices, but that simplicity shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of flavor. On the contrary, the impact of each ingredient in a dish is even more pronounced because it contains only a handful of them, and of the absolute highest quality. And the thing about omurice is, for me, the thing about any simple dish: the intent of the cook is what comes through, the soulfulness. There’s a reason that we come back to our comforting staples, at home or abroad, over and over and over again.
Eventually, I left Osaka and bided some time in Tokyo. It rained just about every day. But there was a night, near the end, when it didn’t—so I wandered around Kōenji, a district just west of Shinjuku, and into an izakaya for a cigarette and a beer. When I stepped inside, the matron and I exchanged the same look of surprise. Her room was tiny, lined with pictures of a gymnast. I wasn’t brave enough to ask if they were of her. But she let me sit down to smoke, and she asked me if I wanted a beer, and then another, and I didn’t know that I was hungry until she slid a menu in front of me. I couldn’t read any of it. I asked for her recommendation, and she laughed.
The matron cooked the dishes and placed each one before me. When I thought the meal was over, I recognized the beginnings of omurice behind the counter; I asked her if she would make it for me, and she nodded. I eat a lot, but it wouldn’t be hyperbole to call it the best meal I’ve had in this life.
I sat under the television, smoking. I had two nights left in Tokyo, before going to Taipei, and then finally on to Texas, head first into the rest of my life. I’d walk some more around the city, drink some more here and there, thinking about my friends back home and the various ways I’d managed to fail them, and how I’d try to do less of that. But, first, there was this meal—omurice drenched in two sauces—and the kindness of a stranger shepherding me through it. There weren’t too many ingredients. I could re-create the feeling of the evening, of the season, maybe, when I made it back home. But I would never quite achieve it, and that was fine, at least for another ten minutes. The matron asked if I wanted another beer, and I told her I did. That, honestly, nothing in that moment would be better.
(This is a very simple, weeknight-dinner-after-work recipe; I’d also highly, highly recommend the Just One Cookbook demi-glace, which takes a few hours but is absolutely worth it)
1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce (preferably a Japanese brand)
2 Tbsp. ketchup
2 Tbsp. tonkatsu sauce
1 Tbsp. honey
1. In a small saucepan, mix together all the ingredients.
2. Over a medium heat, bring sauce to a simmer, then immediately decrease heat. The texture should be just thinner than a gravy. Keep warm until ready to pour over omurice.
⅓ cup boneless chicken thighs, sliced into half-inch pieces
1 Tbsp. soy sauce (plus more for additional seasoning)
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
½ onion, diced
1 ½ cups cooked short-grain rice
2 Tbsp. ketchup
1. In a medium bowl, pour soy sauce over chicken to marinate as you prep your other ingredients.
2. Heat oil in a frying pan until shimmering. Add onions and cook until they’re transparent.
3. Add chicken and cook through.
4. Add rice and mix with chicken and onions.
5. Season the mixture with ketchup and additional soy sauce, to taste, beginning with one tablespoon.
6. Remove pan from heat and set to the side while preparing the omelette.
3 large eggs
2 Tbsp. whole milk
2 Tbsp. vegetable or olive oil
1-2 slices Cheddar cheese, torn into pieces (optional)
1. In a small bowl, beat together eggs and milk.
2. In a sauté pan, heat two tablespoons of oil over medium heat.
3. Add the egg mixture to the pan, lowering the heat when the bottom of the mixture starts to set. (The top of the eggs should remain loose.)
4. In the pan, add the ketchup rice on top of the omelette. (If you are using cheese, add it now.)
5. Using a spatula, slowly guide the outer edges of the omelette toward the middle of the pan, to fold over the rice.
6. Carefully flip the contents of the pan onto a plate. (Watch out for spillage; you might not get this exactly right the first time, but eventually you won’t even think about it.)
7. On the plate, shape the omelette into something like an oval, then drizzle with the demi-glace sauce.