It’s lunchtime at Rengatei, a century-old Tokyo restaurant specialising in yōshoku, or Western-influenced Japanese cuisine. The menu might feature dozens of dishes, but there’s one that you see on most tables: omurice.
Derived from the Japanese words for omelette (omu) and rice (raisu), omurice is a staple for many Japanese families. “It’s home-style cooking,” says Kentaro Takayama, who runs Sydney's Cafe Oratnek and Cafe Kentaro. “I really loved it, my mum used to cook omurice pretty much every week for lunch.”
Often prepared for children, omurice is also beloved by adults. You’ll find it on the menu of yōshoku restaurants and izakayas, and even in some convenience stores. “A lot of Japanese people love it, it’s a very nostalgic taste for us,” says Takayama.
A classic omurice consists of fried rice cooked with meat (generally chicken), tomato sauce, and veggies, like mushrooms. The rice is topped with an omelette, a dollop of tomato sauce, and sometimes demi-glace.
“A lot of Japanese people love it, it’s a very nostalgic taste for us."
It’s believed that omurice was invented at Rengatei, in the Ginza district, in the early 1900s (although Osaka's Hokkyokusei also has an omurice origin story dating back to 1925). You can still eat Rengatei's classic omurice today (the most popular order), as well as one where the egg and rice are mixed.
Another popular version is Tampopo omurice, inspired by the way the dish is cooked in the 1985 film Tampopo. The rice is fried and flavoured with tomato sauce, but the omelette is fluffier than a classic omurice and not cooked through, so when you slice it through the middle, it oozes on the rice. Videos of Motokichi Yukimura preparing Tampopo omurice at his Kyoto restaurant Kichi Kichi have been seen millions of times online.
Other versions of omurice also exist all over Japan. In Okinawa, the omelette is placed on top of taco rice, while in northern Hokkaido, Japanese curry replaces demi-glace. You can also eat omusoba, a dish using stir-fried soba noodles instead of rice.
Omurice has made its way to South Korea, Taiwan, and even Australia. In Melbourne, Reiji Honour puts his spin on omurice at Kuro, the evening version of Hibiki. “Funnily enough, I actually hated omurice as a child,” he says, laughing. “My mum used to do the tomato sauce-based one, which is more traditional. She’d fold the fried rice into the omelette and kinda roll it and add a dollop of tomato sauce on top.”
After trying different types of omurice in Japan as an adult, he set his sights on the Tampopo version, which is trickier to cook. “I wanted to bring that to Australia. Through lots of hard work and broken eggs, we managed to master the technique,” he says.
His recipe involves frying sushi rice with pork belly, sansho pepper, and otafuku sauce, instead of tomato sauce. “Tomato sauce doesn’t sound quite appetising for Australian cuisine, but in Japan, it’s a necessary condiment, just like Japanese mayo. I chose to use otafuku, which is the vegetable barbecue sauce that you put on okonomiyaki. I saw some Japanese restaurants doing it as well. It gives a smokier, stronger taste,” explains Honour.
“I wanted to bring that to Australia. Through lots of hard work and broken eggs, we managed to master the technique.”
He whips the egg to order and tops the omurice with aonori (powdered seaweed).
In Sydney, Takayama has been making his take on classic omurice at Cafe Oratnek for almost four years. At Cafe Kentaro, he gets even more creative with a fluffy omelette and a mushroom and dark miso gravy.
In Surry Hills, Devon Cafe’s omurice is made with tomato and garlic butter rice, an omelette and a mushroom demi-glace. Underneath, you can add katsu bacon, crumbed prawns, steak or fried chicken.
No matter if you like your omurice classic or modern, simple or with add-ons, both Honour and Takayama agree that a great omurice needs to be made to order.
In fact, Takayama doesn't have a microwave at his cafes, and the only frozen food he stocks are ice-cream and ice cubes for drinks; everything he serves has to be fresh – including his omurice. "We cook to order. It’s classic and simple, that’s why it’s really good,” says Kentaro.
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