Ohaiyo! The Japanese breakfast

There are many reasons to love Japan. Onsen, culure, temples, old towns, hanami, ryokans and the list goes on. But one of the biggest reasons why I love Japan is its breakfasts. Japanese brekkie is one of the tastiest and healthiest in the world. And if you know me, these two adjectives are seldom found coupled together in my favourite foods. Yet the Japanese breakfast is a big winner for me. I love them all – from big decadent hotel buffets with generous lashings of ikura, sashimi, negitoro going down with crispy bacon and scrambled egg, to pristine, clean temple vegetarian with tofu done in five different ways. Either way, they really know how to start their day right. Let’s look at my favourite – the traditional breakfast set.

What is typically on the tray of a traditional breakfast? The key ingredients are rice, egg, fish and miso soup. There’s usually some form of this combination on the tray although the rest of the side dishes may vary.

First, rice. Can’t start the day without it. Japanese short grain white rice or sometimes, Japanese rice cooked with mushroom or chestnut. 

Then there is usually some form of grilled fish, my favourites are salmon or the very oily mackeral. Usually this is simply grilled with salt and grilled. But back home when I prepare my version of the Japanese breakfast, I sometimes season with teriyaki sauce and pan fry this. If you have breakfast in traditional ryokans, sometimes the fish is a grilled ayu, or sweet fish usually found in the rivers. 

There is also usually egg – either pan-fried as the tamagoyaki or onsen tamago (soft-boiled with a light broth of dashi, mirin and soya sauce). But like many Japanese, I am a fan of a single raw egg dropped into a bowl of hot freshly cooked rice, a dash of soya sauce or furikake (Japanese seasoning flakes). As you stir it all in, the heat cooks the egg a little and the orange yolk gives the rice a nice shot of umami.

Finally, some soup. Can’t go wrong with miso with seaweed and cubes of tofu and chopped spring onions. But sometimes I like to vary this with a simple seaweed soup with clear dashi broth, or if I am upping the miso game, I might add some asari clams.

What I love about the Japanese breakfast is that it is so simple but yet can have so much taste and texture. You can vary the side dishes but I have five favourites:

  1. Natto (fermented soya beans – an acquired taste!)
  2. Grated nagaimo (mountain yam)
  3. Roe in the form of mentaiko (seasoned cod roe) or ikura (salmon roe – though this is a treat!)
  4. Kuromame (Japanese sweet black beans)
  5. Cold tofu with a dash of soya sauce and grated ginger on top

In Japan, even if your hotel does not offer breakfast, there are lots of small eateries (especially in or near train stations) that offer a set Japanese breakfast for around 800yen or thereabouts.

In Hokkaido, hotel buffets are worth a bit of a splurge because there is usually fresh seafood on the buffet line. In Otaru, we deliberately stayed at the Dormy Inn because it was well-known for its super breakfast buffet. Think mini chirashi bowls, copious amounts of ikura and all my favourites like onsen tamago or the sticky slimy nagaimo (below). We paid extra 2000yen a night per person for this but no regrets. 

Food is always one of the best things about Japan. And in Japan, eat as the Japanese do, start the day right with a quintessential Japanese breakfast. Like the best of Japan, it can be elegantly simple, minimalistic and pared back, or richly decadent and extravagant. And when, like me, you’re missing Japan thanks to the pandemic and closed borders everywhere, make your own Japanese breakfast. If you live near an Asian or Japanese supermarket, this would not be a problem.

So until I can indulge in the real thing, this will have to make do:

Natto, kuromame, rice with seaweed and plum furikake

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