Though readers may be familiar with the photogenic Japanese pancakes of internet fame, these confections are more tea-time sweet than the breakfast flapjack. As with all meals, a Japanese breakfast is entirely dependent on context: the region and season are two determinants of preferred ingredients, but prep time, traditional vs. contemporary, and, of course, individual taste are also important. Today we’ll dive into just a few examples of Japanese breakfast a vacationer might try. First, a note on a guiding principle behind Japanese meal composition: ichiju-sansai, or one soup, three dishes.
Ichiju-sansai is ideally composed of miso soup, a “main” (generally meat or fish), two side dishes, rice, and pickles, all served with tea. The vegetables and sea products change with the seasons, but the basic premise is one of flavor and nutritional balance. Vegetables and seaweed salads bring vital nutrients and fiber to breakfast, while a proteinaceous main dish gives the body fuel, soup hydrates, and rice provides long-lasting energy. If this all seems a bit much to cook before a day of school or work, keep in mind that these are guiding principles for a healthy meal. Surely a dish of Japanese pancakes has been eaten in place of a full meal here or there, but again: not likely for breakfast. What, then, would one wake up and smell while in Japan?
Coffee and Onigiri
With all the attention paid to tea, the rich and varied culture of coffee in Japan is almost criminally underreported! Let’s begin with a convenient breakfast: onigiri and perhaps some coffee. This breakfast in Japan may be reserved for the high school student who woke up late or the grandmother on her way to tend the small but prolific family farm before the summer heat kicks in (too specific?). That said, convenience stores have extremely fresh, fairly nutritious, and tasty meals that put many a foreign 7-11 to shame. The early-morning shopper can pick up a tuna salad onigiri or other rice ball packaged meticulously so the papery seaweed is kept crisp and separate from moist rice until opened. Onigiri can be eaten at lunch or as a snack (they are a famous staple in the lunchtime bento), but they make for a clean and simple start to the day. Add in the equivalent of a 1 USD coffee of surprisingly high quality or a milk tea from the refrigerated section, and you have on your hands a Japanese breakfast fit to be eaten, well, with your hands.
Washoku: UNESCO Heritage You can Eat
The term for a traditional Japanese breakfast is “wachoushoku,” a set meal travelers might encounter while visiting a hot spring or Buddhist monastery. These elaborate breakfasts are a type of washoku, traditional Japanese cuisine registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013. In addition to balance, wachoushoku emphasizes using fresh ingredients of the season, which promotes health and longevity! This elaborate, beautifully-served Japanese breakfast contains many dishes, but due to attention to nutrition, good wachoushoku is filling but never heavy.
Natto: A Japanese Controversy
Once upon a time, a fun “man-on-the-street” interview-style television survey asked foreigners and locals to try neba-neba foods of increasing sliminess. (Though not central to the topic at hand, “neba-neba” is just one of many onomatopoeic adjectives for textures, many of which are reserved for Japanese foods!) Natto, or stringy, fermented soybeans, is a famously acquired taste: so much so that a foreigner or Osakan will be asked over and over, mischievously, “So what do you think of natto?”
While the dish is not as popular in the Kansai region as it is in Tokyo, this extremely healthy dish (plus rice) makes for a Japanese breakfast unto itself! Popular toppings include karashi, a zingy mustard made with horseradish, soy sauce, and negi, a longer and sturdier variation on the scallion. Natto can often be found in styrofoam containers in an effort to avoid extra yeast activity via careful climate-control. If the brave reader chances upon an opportunity to try this breakfast in Japan, we hope they remember to stir, stir, stir to acquire the “stringiness” just right!
One Soup, Three Dishes
We’ve now come full-circle to ichiju-sansai, an organizing principle which really does describe traditional-style Japanese breakfast. A simpler form will include some combination of miso soup, rice, fish, and simmered or steamed vegetable. This style of breakfast in Japan might include leftovers from dinner the night before, much friendlier on a working mother than more literal interpretations of the phrase.
So concludes this brief and woefully incomplete sampling from the great Japanese breakfast menu. May the curious reader travel further down the rabbit hole for recipes and get creative with their dishware. A multi-plated breakfast in Japan could well be imitated or even hybridized in a kitchen near you!