This is Your Brain on Eggs
It all starts with an egg. Doesn’t everything? We start out as an egg; some of us still start our days with one. Culinarily, too, the egg is foundational: when Delia taught us to cook eggs, she wasn’t teaching grandmothers to suck them; she was taking us back to the bare bones of a language, the basic building blocks of grammar and syntax. But the egg is not simple: or rather, it is and it isn’t. Ask any chef: think you have mastered the heat of a pan, the weird alchemy of proteins under changing temperature? Try to make an omelette, as I sometimes do: map the depth of your inadequacy.
There is a literary tradition of near-mystic devotion to the egg: it is a foodstuff that haunts AA Gill’s writing just as it haunts a whole section of Bill Buford’s superlative Heat, a book about pasta (among other things) that agonises over where the egg fits in, and when. Whole restaurants have been built on the egg; whole cookbooks written on it. Such mystery, such simplicity: little wonder the egg has become a blank expanse onto which chefs have written signatures: Alain Passard’s egg-before-all-other-eggs at l’Arpège, Eneko Atxa’s truffle-infused yolk at Azurmendi, David Chang’s egg with caviar, onion soubise and potato at Ko. Little wonder, too, that with the simplest adornment an egg can become a showstopper in its own right, without the need for a 3-Michelin starred chef’s ministrations: I remember fried eggs carpeted in white truffles in a Tuscan enoteca; I remember fried eggs buried in a tumble of wild mushrooms at the place where I always get breakfast in the Boqueria. And from now on, I will remember the onsen tamago at Kunitoraya, an udon shop on the Rue de Richelieu, in Paris.
If you think it seems odd to be eating Japanese in Paris, back to the egg with you. There is a great, natural affinity between these two cuisines: the centuries of culinary history, the prestige accorded to chefs, the primacy of technique, the quiet acceptance of the daily agony of achieving mastery. Nowhere is this clearer than in the many different ways they have discovered to treat the world’s most primal, protean protein. Think the classic omelette, oeufs en cocotte, oeufs en gelée; chawanmushi, okonomiyaki, tamagoyaki and – yes – onsen tamago.
Anyway. At Kunitoraya it arrives cold in a pool of dashi, dressed with a tangle of julienned nori and a scatter of scallions, with a smear of fresh wasabi around the rim of the bowl to add a little poke. I am a fundamentally weird egg-eater: I still struggle with the whites (indeed, my fried eggs look like something out of Dalí, a relief map of untouched congealed albumen with a surreal, perfectly circular lacuna where their centre should be); I find overcooked scrambled eggs practically emetic; and I absolutely, categorically, find eggs served cold repulsive. But not this one.
People sloppily throw Zen-inflected terminology at Japanese food: the delicacy of the flavour, the beauty in purity, the harmony of the ingredients. It troubles me not because it’s racist, but because it’s just lazy, letting decades of accumulated clichés do the work for you (on reflection, that might be a working definition of “racist”, so, yeah – you’re racist, food media). I think we can do better than that; at the bare minimum, we can do Japanese food less of a disservice. To put it differently, then, this was just a sensational dish: beautifully balanced, at once rich in yolk-fat, assertive from the wasabi, smoky and savoury from the dashi, with grace notes from the spring onions and the slight chill on the palate.
Just occasionally you get these moments when you eat something – the roasted monkfish or tuna tartare at Cal Pep, the carbonara at Roscioli, the filet de boeuf with Sarawak peppercorn sauce at Le Bistrot Paul Bert – where factors beyond your individual ken and comprehension, like history, and tradition, and generosity, combine in a quietly baffling way to leave you overwhelmed with gratitude and happiness. This was one such dish. Not bad for (I think) four Euros. Not bad for an egg, either, but then again that is the egg’s lot in life: so often a mere commodity (sure as eggs is eggs), so frequently destined to be yawped in six-packs by gym bros or extruded into joyless white omelettes by women with pinched faces. People who see the drab shell, not the gold within.