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As a history buff who is fascinated by all things old and the stories behind them, my interest in learning and discovering places to eat that have an established link to an ancient or significant past is very strong…
Previously on Foodosophy, I’d reported on a centuries-old establishment that specialized in Dojo fish (Japanese Loach). But today, I thought I’d even go back a bit further in time and tell the story about an even older establishment, which is behind the birth of the oyakodon (the Japanese chicken and egg rice bowl dish). Literally translated, oya means “parent”, and ko means child. Chicken and egg… hope you get the reference.
Since 1760, the Yamada family has been involved with Tamahide. Inside their restaurant located in the Ningyocho district of old Tokyo, they proudly display a photograph from that earlier time, showing the structure that housed the restaurant from its humble beginnings (when it began holding a designated role related to the food slaughtering and preparation of chicken for the ruling Shogunate of the era through three generations of the family) through to it operating as a restaurant featuring Shamo breed chicken nabe (one pot dish).
They still serve the shamo nabe in various courses and still is probably the best way to enjoy this breed of Japanese chicken through various forms of preparation and cooking methods, although the oyakodon is definitely the less expensive option here, and just as well known.
The original idea behind cooking an egg with chicken meat and serving it at Tamahide came from a thought that sprouted after a customer requested that something be done with the final pieces of chicken and broth during his nabe meal, so as not to waste it. Tamahide records this as being in the year 1887. Their historical recordings also noted that this was originally called oyakoni (with ni meaning “simmer”), and was the predecessor to today’s oyakodon.
Then four years later in 1891, the wife of the 5th generation Yamada family head came up with the concept of serving this over rice as a separate menu item, and was offered only as dish that could be selected for home delivery (demae). Oyakodon soon took off in popularity in the neighboring areas such as what is present day Nihonbashi, and eventually spread throughout the entire country of Japan, and has henceforth been recognized as being the birthplace of this now ever present comfort food.
Now led by the eighth generation of the clan, the restaurant still operates in the same general location, which was first built in 1883. As I photographed the building from across the street, I was struck by how similar in appearance it was with the sepia-toned photograph taken centuries ago that was located just inside the main entrance way.
The founders, if they could see it now, must be overjoyed with just how popular this restaurant is in 2009. The regular lineups outside the building are now legendary, and they start forming well before the doors open for the lunch on weekdays or on weekends (this photo was taken on a Saturday afternoon).
With an average (for Tamahide) queue outside the doors, the entire wait time to this point of the visit took over thirty minutes. I’ve stood in line longer for other eating opportunities, so the time spent watching people shuffle in and out of the door, just added to the anticipation.
This decorative corner symbolized to me, the respect and ode to the restaurant’s ancient past, especially the plank that had previously served as the restaurant’s old signage. The woman in the photograph was the a fore mentioned woman, Mrs. Toku Yamada, who is credited with coming up with the idea of serving oyakodon in this manner. I wondered how she must feel about the continued success of this dish at Tamahide, which has paved the way for oyakodon throughout Japan and through the world’s Japanese cuisine serving restaurants.
Finally, the long awaited oyakodon arrived before me. I had elected to go with the Gensou (original) Oyakodon, priced at 1,300 yen. They also have a smaller lunch special version that goes for 800 yen, as well as two other versions priced at 1,500 and 1, 800 yen that incorporate some other ingredients. As it was my first time, I decided to go with the straight up and historically significant style that also came with a small bowl of chicken broth and some finely chopped up tsukemono.
In modern day interpretations of oyakodon, you’ll often find other ingredients such as green scallions and mitsuba (Japanese wild parsley) but not here. Just smaller pieces of both breast and thigh chicken, cooked delicately in a well balanced mixture of shouyu (soy sauce), mirin, sugar, and Japanese sake, and all encased in a slightly runny and fluffy egg coating. A fresh egg yolk was added on top as an added measure – the server told me they are sourced from free range birds from Aomori prefecture.
The sweet and savory combination, being an old Tokyo-style recipe, was perhaps a bit on the heavy side, but this was completely okay with me. The soft texture of the egg was delicious, and the juicy chunks of chicken meat tender as well. Digging deep into the underlying rice, if you’re like me, you’ll be pleased to know that some of the sauce had crept down into the top layer of rice, flavoring that as well. A few bites in and I knew why this place has those ever present lineups.
All in all, I was very satisfied with the oyakodon, and even more so knowing that it was the originators of this dish that I’ve had countless times in my life. A must try for any oyakodon lover!
[In closing, in a previous post from Japan, a commentator inquired about any issues with regards to eating in this country without having any language abilities, or access to translation through a dining partner. I can say that Tamahide has probably been put on the global gastronomical map given its history, and I noticed that the signage outside on the menu board did have English on it, so it should not be a problem to simply smile and point.]