When I was growing up, every commercial for cereal ended with the caveat that was “part” of a complete breakfast, a tacit admission that puffed corn and fructose don’t accomplish much. Inevitably, the next shot was a table crammed with the supplemental foods needed to finish the job: glasses of juice, milk, toast, jam, etc. Even then I realized they had no idea what they were doing. At school, teachers annoyingly reminded me it was the most important meal of the day, and yet everyone seemed to go out of their way to eat the worst possible things.
Breakfast has been in decline throughout much of the world since the industrial food revolution pushed our diets to the limits of common sense. Japanese tried to take to the Western style, frying eggs and, not knowing any better, serving them up cold with thick toast and milk coffee. The French, like a bunch of bad children, decided they would skip to dessert, filling their plates with brioche, croissant, and tartine. In America, it was cereal. The only thing cereal ever told me was to go back to bed, that life is a tale told by an idiot, and that nothing worth doing, or eating, happens until at least noon.
The Kingsley Amis book Everyday Drinking features a short review of breakfasts as taken by famous men, which I hoped would lend some perspective. Instead, the list historicized this trend toward self-nullification, paradoxically as done by people who had intended to wake up, from Winston Churchill with his cold snipe (some kind of game bird) and Port wine to Horatio Bottomley’s pickled herring and brandy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Sunday breakfast, six fried eggs with a glass of laudanum, guaranteed a hazy afternoon of Romantic poetry and little else.
All of which reminds me of brunch, an event I’m often invited to and confused by, a display of what is generally considered degenerate behavior—getting drunk before noon and eating pancakes—put on by the most put-together people I know. Is it their weekly chance at dolce far niente? I’d rather sleep in.
I spent years in this haze, turning down brunch invitations and fasting through the antemeridian hours until I found myself in the Japanese countryside, jet-lagged and waking up at six every morning. Signs of life were scarce, a pleasant fog drifted through the pines, and from the distance, a familiar aroma. I traced it to the kitchen, where I found the only other person awake: the house matriarch as she made breakfast. It was a scene straight from a costume drama, this little old lady in a pale pink kimono setting the table: steamed rice with homemade tsukemono, a broiled fish, and a bowl of miso soup. It resembled something that I would eat at lunch or dinner, when more awake. The funny thing is that she was about to run to the store to get cereal for me, assuming it was what Americans like to eat.
“Yes, we do eat it, but I don’t think anyone really likes it,” I told her, and we had breakfast together on the tatami mats by the window. I had the strangest feeling that I had been expected, that the cereal line was a joke, and that she was about to reveal some life-changing wisdom, as it often transpires, quite unexpectedly.
Her advice was simple: Never eat anything for breakfast that you wouldn’t eat for dinner. Good food is good food, and every meal is the most important.
Such is the philosophy of the full Japanese breakfast, and I’ve been slowly working its finer points into my daily routine. The idea is to nail the formula: rice, tsukemono, broth, some fruit maybe, a light vegetable, green tea, and a little piece of fish. Improvisations and small compromises allow this to be an everyday thing, rather than the big to-do it might turn out to be. In the absence of a freshly broiled sanma, for example, one might have tinned sardines, or preserved salmon. The rice can be made the night before, left covered on the countertop. Pickles keep well in the refrigerator. The soup could just be a chicken broth or leftover dashi with a bit of miso mixed in. The point is, a traditional Japanese breakfast is easier than it sounds. In a rush, it can be as easy as pouring tea over rice to make ochazuke, or with a half hour to spare the decision might be made to go to town.
Full Japanese Breakfast
Rice: If there’s time, freshly cooked short-grain rice is hard to beat, but rice keeps well at room temperature overnight. Many Japanese with electric rice cookers take advantage of the timer setting to wake up to hot rice, the way Americans use Mr. Coffees.
Natto: Not everyone’s cup of tea, but fermented soybeans have been a staple of the Japanese diet for centuries, with their slimy consistency and singular, savory taste. Mixed with soy sauce, sliced scallions, and a little wasabi or hot mustard, natto goes well over a bowl of rice.
Tsukemono: Good-quality Japanese pickles are those made with a short list of natural ingredients and provide sour, sweet, and savory counterpoints to plain white rice. Umeboshi is a classic, as is takuan, and both are commonly available at Asian grocery stores. For an easy homemade touch, overnight koji pickles can be made with sliced cucumber, daikon, or eggplant.
Fish: An oily fish like mackerel or salmon is one of the best tastes in the morning. Salt generously, and broil for a few minutes on each side until the skin has a nice char to it. Garnish with grated daikon and soy sauce.
Soup: I use a teapot to create a quick dashi every morning with a handful of katsuobushi and a small square of kombu. Just allow it to steep for a couple of minutes. For miso soup, add a tablespoon per cup of dashi and whisk to dissolve.
Ochazuke, or green tea over rice, is a quicker, condensed version of the full Japanese breakfast. Similar to ojiya, the dish easily absorbs the ingredients at hand, from leftovers to the freshly made, balancing the subtle taste of green tea and dashi with salted fish, tsukemono, and a hundred other garnishes. What follows is only a starting suggestion of the toppings I often use.
Preserved fish (I use porgy marinated in shio koji)
Toasted sesame seeds
Finely sliced nori
Tsukemono (takuan, umeboshi)
Dashi brewed with green tea (I prefer the roasted hojicha)
While you bring a kettle of water to boil, prepare the rest of the ingredients: In a soup bowl, put rice, fish, sesame seeds, nori, and pickles. The amounts are up to you, depending on how hungry you are. When the water boils, prepare a quick dashi according to the instructions here, adding about two teaspoons of hojicha leaves per cup of dashi. Again, the amount of soup you add is your preference, but equal amounts of soup and rice are a good place to start. After steeping for a few minutes, pour the hot tea over the other ingredients and add a bit of salt to taste.
Jeffrey Ozawa is a writer and cook living in Chicago. His blog, Gorumando, explores life’s pleasures through food.
(photos: Jaimie Lewis of Machins Choses)