Sunday, June 26, 2005

IMBB: Onsen Tamago - Hot Spring Eggs

IMBB is a perfect excuse to cook something fun on a Sunday. This month's theme, Eggs, hosted by Seattle Bon Vivant, is extremely versatile with lots of room for creativity. I briefly toyed with the idea of showcasing baluts, but then decided that was some what too advanced for the general readership... Instead, I went with a more regular egg dish - at least in Japan.

Onsen Tamago, which literally translates to Hot Spring Eggs, is a breakfast staple at any hot spring spas in Japan. Usually served with rice and other assortments of savory breakfast trimming like dried fish, onsen tamago holds a special place in my heart. It reminds me of those lazy family vacations at hot springs when I was a child. Its slippery and condensed egg yolk flavor send me back to my childhood when I marveled at the mystery of the egg yolk being hardened before the egg white...

Yes, the yolk in onsen tamago is firmer than the egg white. This is accomplished by cooking the egg (in its shell, of course) at a relatively low temperature for a long time. Originally, these eggs were cooked in hot springs, where the temperature is naturally much lower than boiling. They were served rather exclusively at hot springs, where water at the optimal temperature for making onsen tamago was readily available.

I made these on the stove by keeping the water at a constant 155F by monitoring the temperature and adding cold water or hot water as necessary. I have to admit - it was a huge pain in the butt. I cooked the eggs for 20 min, which apparently wasn't quite long enough and the yolk was a bit too runny to be perfectly cooked onsen tamago. Next time, I'll cook it in the rice cooker for 90 min, which seems to be the recommended method in many Japanese recipe sites...

But what really matters is that I had fun cooking again, which was something I haven't felt in a while. When I cracked the eggs and slid the contents out into the bowl, my heart jumped with excitement as I saw the entire egg slide out of the shell in one big swooping motion. With elegance and grace, the egg glided out of the shell. I really felt like I was working with the ingredients, despite its extremely simple preparation.

I made some chilled bonito dashi with mirin and soy sauce, which I also used to eat cold udon noodles (which is material for another post...), and floated the eggs in it to serve it in a very traditional style. The chilled noodles is not a traditional accompaniment for onsen tamago at all, but the combination made for a perfect summer lunch. The yolk was heated through and retained warmth despite the quick chilling. The chunks of solid texture in the yolk blended in with the luscious creaminess of the yolk.

I'll probably do things differently next time, but for a first time try, it wasn't too bad. The dichotomy of the simplicity of the method and the extreme care and attention it required to maintain that simplicity reminded me what Japanese cooking was really all about - which is more than anything a complicated dish could do for me right now... In the difficulty of simplicity, I found a moment of calm quiet.

PS: Thank you, Papa Bear, for helping me with the onsen tamago!


Anonymous said...

From our many discussions and story tellings with friends who haven't been previously exposed to baluts, it was indeed a wise decision not to write about it ... just yet. :)

I really like onsen tamago's texture. To call it raw egg is definitely wrong, but you can almost slurp it as if it were a raw egg; as the whites disappear down your throat, you are rewarded with the firmer yolk which lingers because of its firmness; you have but a few moments to savor its silkiness, before it too gives way to gravity and follows its sibling.


Uchipu said...

Bubi...may I recommend "slow cooker" for Onsen Tamagos..?

It's the best thing ever to make em. The problem is, the slow cooker is usually big, resulting in a dozen Onsen Tamagos.

But it is perfect for it.... :)

Sam said...

I love soft yolks so i think your 'mistake' wouldn't have been a problem for me! What a delicious looking, fresh, clean and simple take the Japanese always seem to have on food, thank you for sharing your culture with us again.

I am glad you didn't talk about the baluts. I know what they are and they make me want to close my ears.

Alice said...


I'm not sure if I have the stomach to face off with baluts long enough to take pictures...

Uchi pu,

A dozen onsen tamago! Only if you come visit me - we can pretend we're at a onsen together!


If you like soft yolks, the creaminess of egg yolks and a really good aged soy sauce is a match made in heaven! That reminds me - we need to get together so I can give you your Kyoto souvenier!!

Anonymous said...

Hi Alice

your onsen tamago looks like a work of art! Now that I have seen yours, I am embarrassed to have posted the pic of my onsen tamago.

Alice said...


I love your onsen tamago picture too!


Soft eggs from a really healthy yummy chicken is totally different from soft eggs from a grease spoon diner - if you find yourself in Japan at a 'jidori' (free range, Japanese-govt protected chickens) restaurants, a tiny bite to just try it will definitely be worth while, I promise!

Elise said...

Gorgeous photos and thanks for the tip to cook the eggs in a rice cooker. That could do the trick for keeping the temp at a lower than boiling point.