How a popular Japanese rice bowl became a banh mi
Above: The Torisoboro Ontama Don at Nippon Izakaya Cuulong. Below: The chicken and egg banh mi at Cafe Espacio. Photos: Calvin Godfrey.
A pair of Japanese chefs have solved the chicken-or-egg question.
The answer is both.
At Café Espacio, 25 year-old chef named Kensuke Ueno has managed to glorify bird and egg in a single banh mi.
Ueno's "egg sandwich with chicken base" marries tender meat and an impossibly fluffy wad of scrambled eggs on a toasted baguette. Paying homage to the local sandwich tradition, he balanced the heavy fat factor with fresh greens and his own sweet pickle combination.
Only genius could have inspired Ueno to drizzle the thing with gooey Japanese mayonnaise and serve it with a saucer of ginger-miso sauce and a slice of lime.
"It's addictive," a waitress warned, before placing it down on the table. "Because of the sauce."
Indeed. It is.
When summoned to answer for his creation, Ueno could only grin and stare at his shoes.
"My mother is a chef," he shrugged.
Two years ago, Ueno spent a year studying Vietnamese at the Ho Chi Minh City's University of Social Sciences and Humanity. After completing his year abroad, he returned to the southern city of Fukuoka with thoughts of sandwiches dancing in his head.
Last September, a company called Espacio Vietnam brought Ueno back to HCMC to open the small café in Nihonjinshi (literally "Japanese people town")"”the warren of restaurants, serviced apartments and offices that connect Le Thanh Ton and Thai Van Lung streets in District 1.
A receptionist at the consulate said they didn't keep records of the number of expatriates living in the city, much less in Japanese people town. Akie Watanabe, an editor at Sketch (the local Japanese-language lifestyle magazine) estimated that there are between 7-8,000 expats in HCMC.
Nippon Izakaya Cuulong:
63 Pham Viet Chanh St., Binh Thanh Dist., Ho Chi Minh City.
Hours: Mon-Sat 17:00-22:30, Fri-Sat 11:30 a.m. -22:30 p.m., Sun Closed
Phone:(08) 3 840 9826
8A/7B1 Thai Van Lung St., Dist.1, Ho Chi Minh City
Hours: 7 a.m. -10 p.m. Every day
Phone: (08) 6 291 3626
About 300 reside in the neighborhood around Café Espacio which, at first glance, appears like something of a hermetic getaway.
Every morning, a handful of short-sleeved businessmen begin their day with a cigarette and a "Japanese breakfast" of bacon, eggs and strong cups of Americano (VND85,000).
In the afternoon, they come in for beer and standard fare"”udon, steak and sautéed chicken.
Others spread out with fresh juices and laptops to work in the quiet back booths. In the evenings they sip cocktails and glasses of Suntory whiskey.
At least once a day, however, one of these men hands over VND50,000 for one of Ueno's inspired sandwiches. Despite repeated questioning, the chef could not offer an explanation as to exactly what made him combine chicken and egg in a single sandwich.
"I don't know," he said, seemingly exhausted by the question. "Maybe the flavors go together."
Further research revealed a sandwich that is more than a century in the making.
In 1891, the wife of a 5th generation chicken and rice vendor supposedly came up with the idea of tossing the bird into an omelette.
In 1903, attendees to the 5th National Exposition to Promote Industry in Osaka were bowled over by an array of unfathomable doo-dads"”the refrigerator, the air conditioner and a progenitor of the modern day water slide.
But the expo's patrons went mad for a new entrée called Oyako Donburi (literally "parent and child rice bowl"). The meal combined the chicken and the egg along with some sautéed onions; today, it is one of the most popular working-class meals in the Japan.
Mayonnaise arrived 22 years later, in the suitcase of an industrialist named Toishiro Nakashima, who had traveled to America to study food-canning technology. Nakashima tweaked the recipe, doubling the yolks and adding MSG into mix to produce a superior item, which he hoped would help beef up the undernourished population.
He called it "Kewpie" after the popular American doll.
In 2006, Reuters reported that the average Japanese citizen consumed 1.65 kg of mayo annually. Kewpie (closer to Belgian mayo than the standard American glop) continues to dominate the Japanese mayo market and plays a key role in Ueno's sandwich.
Those who are interested in tracing the sandwich's origins to its roots should head up to Nippon Izakaya Cuulong in Binh Thanh District.
Tomo Harada spent six years as a cook living in Nihonjinshi before opening his an izakaya (drinking establishment) in a house in Binh Thanh District.
Harada offers two "chicken and egg" bowls. His straight Oyakodon (VND150,000) isn't on the menu, but being a true gentleman and professional, he whipped one up anyhow.
Out came a tremendous black bowl of short grain rice smothered in an omelet studded with huge shitake mushroom caps, dark chunks of chicken and loads of green and white onions.
If that sounds good, consider the Torisoboro Ontama Don (VND110,000) which weighs in at roughly half the size.
Here, he chops it the chicken into a fine hash and serve with a soft poached egg. When the yolk bursts, the bowl transforms into a rich celebration of what may be earth's most delicious creature.