Bar Moga (Photo: Kuo-Heng Huang)

Omurice (a Japanese mix of the words “omelette” and “rice”) has been around for years, but viral videos have made it increasingly popular among New Yorkers. The clips show a sharp blade swiftly cutting through a wobbling bulge of scrambled egg, which releases into a cascade of runny omelette. Several Japanese cafes in New York serve omurice dishes; they vary in taste and execution, but they all start with a childhood love for the eggy plate of rice.  

The latest evidence of the city’s omurice obsession is Aoi Kitchen, a homey East Village cafe focusing on yoshoku, European-influenced Japanese cuisine. Joey Choi, who owns Aoi Kitchen with her husband Joseph Moon and partner Han Lee, said the mixed-culture cuisine was her favorite ever since she was a child, but she could never find a yoshoku restaurant she liked. “In a city where there’s nothing you can’t find, it seemed odd that a teishoku (set menu with many small side dishes) spot with the menu we want was so uncommon,” she said. 

Omurice is a cornerstone of this East-meets-West cuisine. The dish gained popularity in the city because of its visual appeal and simple, delicious flavors. It has a bottom layer of rice, normally with some kind of meat cooked into it, covered by an omelette or egg and topped with a sauce, often demi-glace or ketchup. 

Aoi Kitchen

Omurice at Aoi Kitchen consists of fried rice with kurobuta sausage, diced onions, mushrooms and carrots, topped with a simple omelette and signature demi-glace sauce, just how Choi’s mom used to make it. “To be honest, I can’t remember the exact taste of the omurice my mom cooked for me,” Choi said. “But I remember how it felt, and I hope our guests might get a glimpse of that feeling.” She said that Aoi Kitchen wants to focus more on the entire dish’s balance of flavor and texture, because she believes other restaurants focus too much on the egg alone. 

Though it’s new and trendy in New York, omurice has deep ties to Japan and its rapid modernization. The dish’s history is a little scrambled, as multiple restaurants in Japan claim they made the first version in the early 1900s. Although the origins aren’t clear, omurice has become a staple of yoshoku. The cuisine blended cultures and cooking techniques that created tons of delicious Japanese versions of Western food including curry rice, fried chicken and even croquettes. 

Yoshoku originated in Japan in the mid-1800s when the Japanese saw how much physically smaller than Westerners they were. The thinking was if they ate like Europeans they’d become as big and tall as them, so the Japanese brought Western cuisine back to their homeland. 

Omurice is probably the most popular yoshoku dish, especially in Japan on the kids menu. The simple ingredients and taste are great for young children, plus they often use the omelette as a canvas to paint ketchup pictures. Or at least that’s what I did when I was growing up. 

My mom used to make omurice all the time for me and my two older sisters. I was a picky eater, so I always got suspicious that my mom was hiding vegetables under that huge, flat bed of egg. She would make fried rice with soy sauce, ketchup, chopped onions and bacon, then scramble eggs into a super thin omelette. Then she’d just lay the omelette on top of the rice, covering the entire plate. My favorite part was always drawing a smiley face with the bottle of Heinz. After that I would try to pick the onions out of the fried rice, which, as any veggie-hating kids knows, is not as easy as you think. 

Bar Moga (Photo: Kuo-Heng Huang)

Since then I’ve gained more appreciation for the dish, but I had never seen the more delicate and precarious version of omurice that’s popular in the city until the videos on the internet. The immensely satisfying egg-splosion has brought diners from near and far to Japanese eateries like Hi-Collar and Bar Moga. But when you crack open New York City’s omurice scene, there’s a lot more than just eggs and rice. 

Bar Moga and Hi-Collar both have influences from early-century Japan and claim to be powerhouses behind the omurice infatuation. Hi-Collar opened in 2013, and Sakura Yagi, COO of TIC restaurant group, told Bedford + Bowery they’ve been serving omurice for about five years. “I suggested that it should be on the menu at Hi-Collar,” Yagi said. “As a child I ate it a lot and I love it.” 

The Hi-Collar omurice consists of a ketchup-based rice with bacon, below the fluffy egg omelette that’s still soft and runny on the inside. They offer three toppings: ketchup, demi-glace and cream sauce. Yagi said the viral videos boosted the popularity of the yoshoku staple and it’s the most sold item at the cafe. The six-year-old Hi-Collar claims it has New York City’s original omurice. “There might be other places that do their own version of it or whatnot,” Yagi said. “But I would say that we are the cafe that is around and has been around for many years serving the omurice.”

Bar Moga, on the other hand, opened in 2017. They preach “proper yoshoku,” as head chef Shintaro Okuda would put it. He believes other restaurants have presented omurice as an extension of normal Japanese food, not as an important part of the yoshoku sub-cuisine. He thinks its visuality and cuteness can distract from the cooking techniques and its importance in yoshoku history. 

Aoi Kitchen

Shintaro takes “proper yoshoku” very seriously. He wants to present a traditional omurice that stays true to yoshoku values. He’s so dedicated to this that in the month leading up to Bar Moga’s opening, Okuda said he was eating about 30 eggs a day while practicing the omelette. 

The result of his practice is Bar Moga’s “proper” omurice. It uses chicken and ketchup, which are Western ingredients, and utilizes French techniques such as the omelette, the demi-glace and the sauteed rice. “Yet we use Japanese components, Japanese ingredients and Japanese soul,” Shintaro said. “That’s what makes omurice more proper than other restaurants.”

Whichever omurice is really the standard or most genuine, Shintaro said he knows there’s room for growth and change. “It’s okay to have a different variation and it’s okay to wrap it, it’s okay to put the sheet of egg on top,” he said. This experimentation can lead to different kinds of omurice and yoshoku, hopefully making the cuisine more accepted than it already is. “It could be another popular Japanese food in New York City, as well as sushi and kaiseki and omakase and all those styles,” he said. “And then there’s going to be yoshoku attached to it. That’s what I want.”