Photo/IllutrationA non-Japanese tourist shouts and gives a thumbs-up to express his satisfaction with his first taste of “tamago kake gohan” on Nov. 8 in Kyoto’s Ukyo Ward. (Yoshiko Sato)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Like most foreigners, Taiwanese Hsiao Ya-ying thought that eggs were only to be eaten when cooked.

But the restaurant worker decided to try “tamago kake gohan,” a popular Japanese breakfast dish of cooked rice topped with a raw egg and soy sauce, on her trip to Kyoto.

At the Tamagoya eatery in the Sagano district of Kyoto, Hsiao, 25, was among the foreign sightseers flooding in to try the dish, which is growing in popularity among non-Japanese foodies.

Hsiao said she became interested in tamago kake gohan when learning about it on the Internet.

“Taiwanese do not consume eggs raw,” she said.

But after finishing the bowl, Hsiao said, “It was the first time I've eaten tamago kake gohan, and it was delicious.”

Tamago kake gohan, or TKG for short, is a simple meal loved by people of all ages in Japan.

Although people outside the country are known to be wary of eating raw eggs, many visitors to Japan have discovered the appeal of tamago kake gohan.

Touting Japanese eggs as “tasty and safe,” Tokyo posts record exports of eggs every year. The day may be coming when tamago kake gohan will be accepted by consumers throughout the globe.

At Tamagoya, PG Patil, 50, an Indian company employee who lives in Singapore, slowly put a bite of yellowish rice in his mouth and said "delicious."

He then quickly finished a bowl of tamago kake gohan within three minutes or so. He said he tried tamago kake gohan because he had heard Japanese eggs are fresh and that he wants to try it again in Singapore if eggs from Japan are available there.

Hiroki Matsuoka, 52, the owner of Tamagoya, said non-Japanese visitors began ordering tamago kake gohan two to three years ago. Currently, 70 to 80 percent of its customers are from outside Japan.

Even on a weekday, non-Japanese alone consume 20 to 30 bowls of standard-size tamago kake gohan each with an egg and nearly 10 large bowls with two eggs each.

“It is a common sight here for foreigners to be seen eating tamago kake gohan,” said Michiko, 73, Matsuoka's mother, who handles orders.

The Kadoya Hotel in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward--a popular destination among overseas sightseers--serves tamago kake gohan using eggs from the Tanba district in Kyoto Prefecture as the main attraction of its Japanese-style breakfast.

“An increasing number of non-Japanese guests have tamago kake gohan,” said a hotel official.

GROWING EXPORTS

The custom of consuming raw eggs did not spread outside Japan for many years.

“The best-before date of eggs is set in Japan on the assumption that they will be eaten without being cooked, and their quality is strictly controlled,” said an official of the Japan Poultry Association. “On the other hand, it is common knowledge in most regions outside the nation that eggs should be cooked. There are high hurdles to serving raw eggs.”

Shinichi Takaki, 60, who runs a website called Tamago Hakubutsukan (Egg museum) to provide information on the foodstuff, said the practice of eating raw eggs must be “shocking in the United States and Europe,” referring to a scene from the movie “Rocky” where the protagonist downs a glass of raw eggs.

However, there are signs of change. Buoyed by the worldwide Japanese food boom, exports of eggs have recently been brisk.

According to the agriculture ministry, egg exports rose from 120 million yen ($1.06 million) in 2008 to 1.02 billion yen in 2017.

While the main importers were Hong Kong, Singapore and other Asian states, approval was given in October for exports to start to the United States.

San-Ei Keiran Co. in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, began exporting raw eggs by plane to Singapore in 2012.

Out of consideration to local consumers’ reluctance to eat raw eggs, San-Ei Keiran serves soft-boiled eggs at promotional events at supermarkets to allow shoppers to sample its products.

San-Ei Keiran sets up an unassuming photo panel to introduce tamago kake gohan to shoppers. However, a local shopper told a San-Ei Keiran official that a person started preparing tamago kake gohan with its eggs at a promotional event in early November.

“Local residents started consuming tamago kake gohan, though whether the meal frequently appears on their tables is unclear,” said a San-Ei Keiran official.

San-Ei Keiran’s six-egg pack is priced at around 800 yen, five times more expensive than average package of eggs in local areas. But exports are on the rise, and its products are accepted as not “Japanese eggs” but “tamago,” according to officials.

“Sashimi was once said to be difficult to accept for non-Japanese, but it has become popular, eventually resulting in the booming consumption of sushi overseas,” said Takaki. “The same goes for eggs. If people become aware that raw eggs are safe and tasty, their consumption will spread quickly.”