Japanese Crab & Shrimp Omelette on Rice
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When I first started working on egg recipes, there were certain common dishes that I wanted to avoid. This wasn’t because they weren’t good or interesting, but because I wanted to focus more on recipes that my readers might be less familiar with. If I give you an omelette you’re probably not going to say ‘wow I’ve never scene an omelette before.’ I’ve had a lot of fun digging a bit deeper and exploring some less familiar ground, but when I came across tenshindon, I was reminded of two very important things – that people around the world have very different takes on very universal foods, and that there’s always something new to discovery even in well-trodden territory. To that end, I give you an omelette. And what an omelette.
Tenshindon (also called tenshinhan) is a Japanese dish with Chinese origins (or at least Chinese inspiration). Made with seafood (generally crab) and served with rice and a sweet/sour sauce, it’s a dish that’s beguiling and enchanting in it’s simplicity. The omelette itself is light and savoury with flavours that manage to be complex yet conducive to the relatively mild taste of crab and shrimp. The sauce is tangy and sweet, and a far cry from the cloying fluorescent nightmare that usually passes for sweet and sour sauce in the West. When it all comes together, it’s an example of my absolute favourite type of cooking – the kind that relies on quality ingredients and simple techniques.
The recipes is named after Tianjin, China, though there’s no consensus about the connection between the place and the meal. As this article from the South China Morning Post explains, there are a few competing origin stories with differing connections to Tianjin itself. One story links the recipe to Rai Rai Ken restaurant in Asakusa, Tokyo, which famously introduced the world to shoyu ramen in 1910. The story goes that the third-generation owner, who had just returned from serving in the Sino-Japanese war, was asked to whip up a very quick meal for a customer. He threw together a crab omelette and topped it with the sweet-and-sour sauce he already had on hand, then named it after the city of Tianjin, which was well-known in Japan (thanks in no small part to the fact that it was full of Japanese soldiers at the time). If this is true, then the Tianjin part of the name is used only to evoke Chinese-ness. However, a competing story suggests a more direct connection; an Osaka restaurateur originally from Shandong was trying to make use of the cheap blue crabs and rivers shrimp available during the economically depressed post-war years. He developed the recipe based on the frugal, shareable one-dish meals that he’d known during leaner times back home in China. This story seems a little bit more directly connected to Tianjin and China in general, but it’s not air-tight either. Tianjin isn’t actually in Shandong, but is a very large port city NEAR Shandong. As with the Tokyo-based story, it’s conceivable that Tianjin was still used because of its familiarity amongst the Japanese public.
The two stories are simple enough on the surface, but their juxtaposition is fascinating because of the pre- and post-war factors. The Tokyo origin story frames the recipe in the context of imperialist and expansionist war-time culture, making it a sort of ‘souvenir’ of Japan’s attempts to widen its influence and control. The Osaka origin story reflects a very different Japan – one reeling from defeat and adapting to economic hardship. Of course it’s possible that neither origin story is true – though if that’s the case, the differences between the two stories still speak to role of food in the Japanese identity.
Regardless of the dish’s origins, it’s a great example of how Japan’s propensity for adapting far-flung recipes to suit that national palate. Many recipes we now think of as typically Japanese are, in fact, Japanese takes on foreign foods. Tempura was adapted from a Portuguese dish for example, while ramen and gyoza originated from Chinese dishes. Tenshindon is also part of a much more modern Japanese food cannon, as are all of the ‘don’ recipes (gyudon, okyakodon, etc.) The word donburi (丼) means ‘bowl.’ This word gets truncated to don when it comes at the end of a term – for example gyudon (beef bowl), katsudon (pork cutlet bowl), or tenshindon (Tianjin bowl). This bit of naming isn’t terribly surprising or fascinating on it’s own, but the idea of serving an entire meal in a single bowl was once a rather revolutionary and counter-culture idea in Japan. Rice was served separately as part of a meal, to be eaten with other dishes – not underneath them. But donburi are very convenient, and that held a lot of sway during the economic growth of the Meiji period (1868-1912). Donburi dishes took off in popularity precisely because they combined rice and toppings in a simple bowl, which proved perfect for busy workers in need of a snack or meal. They were, in a sense, Japanese fast food; portable, easy to eat, easy to make, filling, and delicious. The first successful donburi recipes rode a wave of change in Japanese food culture, opening up a world of possibilities in the ‘stuff on rice’ food genre. Tenshindon takes things one step further by adding a particularly bold and thick sauce, and it makes for one of my absolute favourite rice-bowl recipes. I hope you’ll give it a try.
If you’re at all familiar with Japanese home cooking, this recipe will be a snap. If you’re new to it, it’s still very straightforward, but I will give some tips and pointers on some of the ingredients and the assembly/plating.
Wood Ear Mushrooms
These mushrooms are unfamiliar to a lot of Western cooks and frankly that’s a shame, because they’re easy to use and wonderful in a variety of dishes. Wood ear mushrooms (also called mu-erh in Mandarin and kikurage in Japanese) are mild-tasting mushrooms that grow on the sides of trees. They’re almost always sold dried and rehydrated, yielding a thin mushroom with a rather dense texture that’s somehow crunchy and jelly-like at the same time. They’re easily found at Chinese grocery stores and, because they’re shelf-stable and easy to store, they’re also a good choice for online shopping.
When working with dried wood ear mushrooms, simply rehydrate them in a small bowl of warm water for about 20-30 minutes until they’ve expanded and softened. At this point, they can be sliced into thin strips.
If you can’t find wood ear mushrooms you can substitute another mushroom you like, though the flavour and texture are likely to be quite different. Enoki mushrooms are a popular choice. For a similar texture with a very different ingredient, you can add bamboo shoots. The flavour is obviously different, but is nonetheless mild enough to compliment the recipe well. Given that the wood ear’s biggest contribution to the meal is textural, you can also omit mushrooms all together without sacrificing much in the way of flavour.
I don’t have a problem with artificial crab. On the contrary, I like it quite a bit – except for the name. I mean, it is meant to look like crab legs, but it doesn’t taste like crab, and frankly it doesn’t really look like crab meat. I’ve seen quite a few tenshindon recipes that call for artificial crab, but I really think that this is a meal that calls for real crab. I’ve used Dungeness crab in this recipe, but you could substitute any local, fresh crab variety.
I also used small Northern shrimp (Pandalus borealis) in this recipe. I quite like how the crab and shrimp taste together, and it nicely fits the Osaka-based origin story for the recipe. Northern shrimp are generally cheaper than crab too, so it stretches the recipe while keeping things affordable. That being said, you could easily omit the shrimp and double the crab. If you can’t find Northern shrimp, you could substitute another small, sustainable species, or use larger shrimp cut into pieces.
I’ve covered this subject a few times on Diversivore now, but it’s worth repeating the key points. Dashi is a simple stock that’s essential to Japanese cooking. It’s generally made with kombu (a type of dried kelp) and katsuobushi (shaved, dried skipjack tuna). Both ingredients are readily found at most Japanese grocery stores, and often at well-stocked Asian grocery stores. You can also find plenty of instant dashi options in these stores, and while many of them can deliver a respectable broth, I would strongly encourage you to read the ingredients. Many of the cheaper ones have no real fish to speak of, and are mostly just MSG (and too much of it at that).
While making dashi from scratch does require the ingredients I mentioned above, it doesn’t involve much skill. Gently brush a piece of kombu (about 10×15 cm [4×6 inches]) to get rid of any debris or clinging bits. Add it to a large pot of water (about 2 liters) and heat it to a simmer or very gentle boil. Let the kombu sit in the hot water for about 5 minutes, taking care not to let it reach a hard boil. Turn off the heat and add a handful* of katsuobushi to the hot water and let it stand for 15 minutes. Strain out the solids, and your dashi is ready to use. Note that it won’t taste like much on it’s own; without salt and other flavours, the savoury/umami aspect of dashi doesn’t jump out at you. But when dashi is combined with other ingredients (e.g. soy, seafood, etc.) it adds incredible depth and pop to the dish. If you’re looking for the above information in a more detailed breakdown, or looking to try out dashi in another recipe, check out my Kitsune Nabe – a tofu/mushroom/quail egg soup/stew that’s easy and crazy-good.
*It’s probably about 1 very loose cup, but I literally always grab a handful. It’s not a very exact science, nor does it need to be.
A Note on Serving
To serve the tenshindon, put a generous helping of rice (enough for two) into a bowl, then invert this in a larger bowl. This will give you a dome-shaped mound of rice that you can serve the omelette over. When you pour the sauce over everything, it forms a sort of ‘egg island’ in the middle. Looks great, tastes better. If that’s too fussy for you, or you’d rather not share a bowl with someone, you can simply serve the omelette on a plate with individual bowls of rice. Diners can take a piece of the omelette with their rice and pour some sauce over everything. You can also serve the omelette on it’s own, in which case it’s called kanitama.
The recipe is also pretty amazingly high in cholesterol thanks to the combination of eggs, crab, and shrimp, but contemporary studies suggest that this is far less of a concern for most people than previously believed. If you’re concerned about cholesterol, talk to your doctor.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
(for making dashi)
*Note: the recipes is gluten-free if you use a wheat-free tamari, but not if you use a standard soy sauce.
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