When you hear the word “breakfast,” do you think bacon, eggs, hash browns, and a cup of coffee? A cappuccino and a sweet biscuit? Spicy soup and a deep fried dough stick? What’s on the menu varies greatly from country to country, but Japan’s is arguably one of the healthiest. So what’s on the menu?
What is a Traditional Japanese Breakfast?
Although modern Japanese breakfasts are highly Westernized, “obaachan no asagohan,” or breakfast prepared by grandma is probably a typical traditional Japanese breakfast. Japanese grandmas born during the early Showa Period (1926-1989) experienced food shortages and rationing during wartime, so they typically make use of everything when they cook–the peels, stems, the parts of vegetables that we throw away.
If you grew up in Japan or with Japanese relatives, you might remember the principle “Ichi Ju San Sai” 一汁三菜. It’s the basis of the Japanese diet, and it means one soup dish and three side dishes. Rice is not mentioned, because it’s considered a main course.
Fluffy, white Japanese rice is best served steaming hot right out of the rice cooker. If you don’t have a rice cooker, you can cook it in a pot on the stove. Apparently, once you train your ear you can tell when it’s done by the sound! While white rice is typical, brown and mixed grain rice are becoming more common as people follow Western health trends.
Try it! Follow this recipe to learn how to cook Japanese rice on the stove. Short grain California rice will do, if you can’t find Japanese rice. Serve plain in a small ceramic bowl, or to mix things up, make mini rice balls with your choice of fillings in the center. Be creative!
Japanese style rice ball 1: umeboshi
Japanese style rice ball 2: drained sweetcorn and tuna mixed with mayonnaise
American style rice ball: bacon bits (but go easy on the bacon!)
Korean style rice ball: kimchi
Miso Soup 味噌汁
Miso soup is made from miso paste and some dashi broth (either fish-based or seaweed-based). The typical ingredients are tofu, aburaage (the rare deep-fried ingredient of a Japanese breakfast), wakame seaweed, and vegetables like potatoes, Japanese daikon radish, or leeks. Soup is easy on the stomach, and miso contains probiotics that promote gut health, so it’s a good way to start the day.
Try it! The key to good miso soup is to add the miso paste after you have boiled the ingredients and turned off the heat. In contrast to rice, miso soup is served in a wooden bowl. If you can’t find miso, try your favorite vegetable soup.
Green Pea and Asparagus Soup from myrecipes.com
Tempeh Tomato Vegetable Soup from The Spruce Eats
Healthy French Onion Soup from A Sweet Pea Chef
Sweet and Savory Egg Omelette だし巻き卵
Eggs are colorful and a good source of protein and therefore usually included in the standard breakfast in some shape or form. Sweet and savory “dashimaki tamago” is flavored with sugar and dashi broth, made in a special rectangular pan, and served cool. Regarding eggs, The Ministry of Health of Japan requires them to be thoroughly disinfected before being packaged in a special facility. That’s why Japan is one of the only countries where it is safe to eat eggs raw. Who doesn’t enjoy a raw egg cracked over a bowl of rice (tamagokake gohan)?
Try it! If you live outside of Japan, consuming raw eggs could lead to salmonella poisoning, so here are some safer alternatives:
Scrambled eggs–with a pinch of sugar and a splash of soup stock
Boiled eggs–sprinkled with black sesame seeds and a pinch of salt
Sunny-side up–sprinkled with dried nori seaweed
Pickled Vegetables 漬物
Grandmas all over the world say to “eat your colors.” Japanese breakfasts definitely follow this rule! Pickled vegetables of all hues are placed strategically on the breakfast table to contrast with the plain-colored dishes. The four pickling ingredients are: salt, vinegar, sake lees, and rice bran. Two pickles that often appear on the table are umeboshi (red) and takuwan (bright yellow).
Try it! Look for umeboshi, takuwan, or nukazuke (rice bran pickles) at your local Asian grocery store. Serve a single umeboshi or a few slices of takuwan or nukazuke on a tiny dish. If you can’t find Japanese pickles, you can substitute healthy alternatives like Korean kimchi or Bavarian sauerkraut.
Cooked Vegetables 和え物・お浸し
The two common types of cooked vegetables are “aemono” and “ohitashi.” If you ever wondered what the difference was, aemono consists of already cooked vegetables flavored with miso, mashed tofu, or umeboshi. It is always served cold. On the other hand, ohitashi is made by boiling vegetables (usually spinach) in a soy sauce-based flavoring or, alternatively, boiled, excess water squeezed out, and then marinated.
Try it! Try one of the recipes below, and serve in a little bowl, or “kobachi.”
Spinach Gomaae from JustOneCoobook
Japanese Style Seasoned Okra from Plant-Based Matters
Bell Pepper and Tuna Aemono by My Recipe Magic
Eating fish first thing in the morning may be a little weird if you have never experienced the Japanese breakfast before, but it is really a hearty way to start your day. Fish are usually grilled, rather than fried, with minimal seasoning, and served in small portions. Common breakfast fishes are salmon, mackerel, and horse mackerel.
Try it! Alaskan salmon, canned sardines, or light chunk (skipjack) tuna are good alternatives if you are living outside of Japan. Not only are they good sources of protein and healthy fats, they are also low on mercury content.
Pan-fried Alaskan salmon from The Food Network
Sardine ochazuke from Food52
Tuna and rice bowl from Taste.com.au
You know someone is eating natto by its rather pungent smell. Natto, like Indonesian tempeh, is fermented soybean. The protein and nattokinase (an enzyme in natto) are linked to all kinds of health benefits and longevity in Japanese people (read about in our post here).
Try It! Check your local Asian grocery store for single serving styrofoam packs of natto. Mix vigorously with chopsticks until slippery in texture and serve over a bowl of rice, topped with chopped spring onions and flavored with a dash of soy sauce and “karashi” mustard. If you can’t find natto, a cup of plain yogurt will help you get your probiotics for the day!
Green Tea お茶
A cup of green tea is a perfect way to finish off your morning banquet. Not only will it cleanse your palette and help you to keep from overeating, green tea contains powerful antioxidants, and 30-50mg of caffeine per cup (compared to 102-200mg per cup of coffee), to give you a little oomph for your day. As you sip your tea, remember that its consumption was a privilege of first monks and nobles (men only!) until it became widely available in the 19th century.
Try It! Good green tea leaves can be brewed once, twice, even three times and still produce a vivid color and full taste. Use less than boiling water, or if boiling, transfer to a cup to cool before pouring over leaves, and keep steeping times below three minutes for a mild flavor.
How to Eat a Japanese Breakfast
As you might have noticed from the “Try It” sections above, Japanese breakfasts are served on a variety of separate dishes, with different materials used for different foods. The shape and size of the dish is meant to optimize its aesthetic beauty, and each dish has its particular placement on the table. With “top” meaning the side of the placemat furthest from you and “bottom” meaning the side closest to you, here is the general rule:
Rice: bottom left
Miso soup: bottom right
Egg dish: top left
Aemono or ohitashi: top middle
Fish: top right
Pickled vegetables: in between the rice and miso soup, or in the center of the placemat
In the West, with our crowd-pleasing one-pot dishes and casseroles and tossed salads, we tend to eat everything together, but Japanese breakfast dishes are meant to be nibbled in rotation. The correct order to eat breakfast is to take a sip of miso first, then a bit of rice, then a taste of the side dishes, starting with the lightest in flavor, and back to miso again. This cycle helps you feel fuller, which helps you to keep another principle: “hara hachi bun me,” which means finishing when you are 80% full. It’s no wonder the obesity rate of Japanese adults was a mere 4.3% as of 2016, making Japan the seventh lowest on a list of 191 countries. By contrast, China has a 6.2% rate (169th on the list), Germany 22.3% (79th), and the United States 36.2% (12th).
A more modern, Westernized Japanese breakfast might include a fresh salad, mini sausages or a slice of ham, a cup of yogurt with sliced fresh fruit, or a thick slice of toast with a slice of cheese, or delicious bakery bread. Recently, “hot sand” or panini-style sandwiches are popular, especially among campers. How about you? What’s your breakfast style?
Sample Menu 1:
Miso soup with yesterday’s leftover vegetables
A bowl of hot white rice topped with natto and chopped spring onion
Grilled mackerel with grated daikon
A cup of green tea
Sample Menu 2:
A bowl of brown rice
French onion soup
A slice of pan-fried Alaskan salmon
A cup of green tea