The problem was, the egg mixture just wasn’t cooperating.
I was standing in Elizabeth Ando’s highly organized and functional kitchen, a square frying pan in one hand and long cooking chopsticks in the other, trying to make tamagoyaki, or Japanese rolled egg omelet.
It is, at first sight, a fairly simple-looking omelet, sometimes with flecks of aonori (dried green seaweed) mixed in with the egg and sometimes with nori (dried seaweed) sandwiched in between the layers of egg, which is the way I like it.
But as I knew from many years of making tamagoyaki – a staple of Japanese breakfasts and bento lunchboxes – it really isn’t as easy to make as it looks, especially if you try to do it the traditional way, with chopsticks rather than a turner.
And that was precisely my problem that afternoon, as I struggled to turn over the sheet of egg that was setting in the pan with two long sticks that seemed completely inadequate for the task.
“Don’t worry about the wrinkles,” Elizabeth said sympathetically, as she tried to demonstrate how it is indeed possible to roll the whole sheet of egg over and over into a perfectly shaped cylinder without turning it into something resembling scrambled eggs.
The tamagoyaki was perhaps, the most difficult of everything we tried our hands at during an information-packed lesson in how to make a Japanese bento meal and arrange each serving neatly into two-tiered bento boxes.
The bento theme was appropriately timed as it was March, just before the start of the new school year when young mothers start to fret about their bento-making skills, glossy women’s magazines feature page after page of impossibly beautiful bento and restaurants compete to showcase both their culinary expertise and their skill at aesthetically arranging and packing all the food into small, picnic-friendly boxes.
In addition to tamagoyaki, Elizabeth showed us how to make spinach in sesame sauce (goma-ae), bamboo shoots flavoured with katsuobushi (shaved, dried bonito) and rice with salted cherry blossoms, among other dishes that can easily be put into a bento box.
We learned fascinating tidbits – for example, that Japanese eggs are yellower than those found in the west because the chickens are fed seaweed (wakame), which makes the eggs lower in cholesterol and higher in vitamin D, and that once you open the plastic bags they come in, enoki mushrooms continue to grow about half an inch a day.
Our four hours-plus cooking lesson with Elizabeth was quite intense, but we were rewarded with a delicious bento lunch, a wealth of knowledge about Japanese cooking, and many techniques to practice at home.
In the end, my tamagoyaki specimen was not as bad as it could have been, and after a few clumsy attempts in my own kitchen, I no longer have to throw my chopsticks up in despair and revert to using a turner.