The Best Part of Waking Up: Breakfast in Tokyo and Beyond
Up at the crack of dawn to ride the train an hour into the city from his suburban home, he puts in a full ten, eleven, twelve hours at the office and caps it off with a few beers and some grilled chicken with his co-workers, then back again on the late-night train to his futon and his sleeping family. What powers this unsung everyman as he goes about his business from dawn to dusk? What’s his first shot of nutrition and energy before he faces his day with a smile and a polite bow?
Breakfasts in the kitchens and diners of Japan vary just as much as they do in any other country in the world. There are regional differences, age differences, and of course regular old individual differences in how, and even whether or not, the people of Japan break their fast. However, patterns and trends emerge, certain favorite dishes span the nation, and some aspects of that sunrise repast are in theory, if not in practice, central to Japanese food culture.
The Dawn of Breakfast
Records of historical dietary habits in Japan are incomplete at best, especially regarding a meal as humble and everyday as breakfast. Though there is allusion to the emperor enjoying a morning meal during Japanese antiquity in the Heian period and noble families feasting on an ongoing procession of dishes during later eras, it seems that for most of Japanese history, and indeed most of world history, people ate two meals a day, the first of which might’ve been right after waking, a few hours after waking, or even at a time nearer to lunch.
It seems that the three-meal-a-day approach, and a proper set breakfast, got its full footing in the Edo era. The staple starch was then as now rice, which would be steamed to fluffiness and eaten together with miso soup, pickled dishes, and grilled fish. Though preparing rice nowadays is often as simple as tossing the grains into an automated cooker and letting technology do the rest, in previous eras everything would be cooked in hearths. Starting up a cooking hearth fire was a demanding task, so the Japanese of old would often cook all their rice for the day all at once. In the capital in the east, rice would be cooked in the morning and eaten perhaps with green tea and soup stock as chazuke in the evening. However, in the old capital of Kyoto, rice would be prepared in the evening and turned into a comforting and warming type of rice porridge called okayu come the next morning.
Rice and Miso: the Twin Kings of the Morning
Broadly-speaking, the modern Japanese breakfast can be broken into two categories: western and Japanese. As is the case not just with breakfast but with many meals in Japan, this difference is underscored by what kind of starch you are served, with “Japanese” being a byword for “with rice” and “Western” one for “with bread.” Let’s first example the classic menu, which is as iconic a breakfast in Japan as bacon and eggs with toast and hashbrowns is in the States.
Though upstarts like bread and pasta lurk on the horizon waiting to usurp its place in the kitchens of the nation, rice is the fundamental dish in any traditionally-Japanese meal, doubly so for breakfast. Whole books could be written about its cultural, economic, historical, and even spiritual importance. Put simply, the rice enjoyed throughout the day is a short-grain one that clumps together well, lending itself to ease of eating when using chopsticks. Though this is most often polished white rice, an increasingly health-conscious nation has begun to more and more often add in brown rice and various grains for increased nutrition. Many households have a rice cooker with automated timer to allow the family to begin their day with piping-hot rice. In fact, the steamy heat of freshly-cooked rice ties into a dish that will be mentioned later.
Salty, flavorsome yang to rice’s delicate, light ying is miso soup. Though there is a vast array of in regional varieties, the stereotypical breakfast miso-shiru will be that savory and familiar cloudy broth dispensed at classy seafood restaurants and hole-in-the-wall sushi joints alike. In its purest form, miso itself is a paste made from soybeans fermented in salt with a special mold. Dissolved in dashi (a stock of seaweed and dried skipjack tuna) and served hot and fresh, the soup will often include ingredients called gu, popular ones including strips of seaweed, chopped-up scallions, bits of dried or deep-fried tofu, and sesame seeds. Combined with pork and other hardy ingredients, it becomes a filling dish of tonjiru, great for those hard-to-start winter mornings.
Supporting Cast and Special Guests in the AM
Have you eaten natto? If you don’t think you have, then you probably haven’t, as its distinctive flavor and texture are unforgettable regardless of whether you love it or loathe it. Steamed soybeans are left to ferment under the influence of a particular species of bacteria (traditionally obtained from the straw of the rice plant) to create a textured, pungent dish. Often coming to the consumer in square, flat Styrofoam containers, the beans are mixed together with chopsticks until thoroughly stringy, with people adding seasonings like mustard, soy sauce, chili oil, and even sugar based on preference. And preference is key: even among Japanese, this is a contentious food. Natto is most popular in the east and the north, with popularity waning as you move west and hitting a nadir in the areas around Osaka and Kyoto.
Another popular side is raw egg, which is beaten then mixed directly into steaming-hot rice to let the residual heat from the grains cook the egg to a runny consistency comparable to a soft-boiled egg. This dish, called tamagokake-gohan (rice with egg), is popular enough to merit specialty soy sauces that breakfasters will sprinkle in their beaten egg before adding to their rice. It’s also often used as an easy-to-digest and nutritious way to recover from a night of drinking. If strips of dried seaweed accompany, these can be lifted up with chopsticks and used to take up pieces of rice for an impromptu egg-and-nori “sushi” roll. The ravenous and the adventurous will go further and add their natto right into the mix for a protein-packed bowl.
However, what’s described here is just the standard version. Pickled vegetables bring a light and crunchy note, and grilled fish is a common accompaniment that adds a meaty boost to a very carbohydrate-rich meal. Depending on the setting, you might even see circles of pan-fried back bacon and eggs fried sunny-side up. Two items that might shock the Western diner who comes down expecting a Japanese breakfast are salad and hot dogs. The former is usually simply a standard salad with a choice of dressings, but the latter invariably masquerades as “sausage,” though those pinkly-processed tubes of meat bear only a passing resemblance to the British and American breakfast sausage.
Related: Selected 5+3: Additions That Make Japanese Want to Eat Rice
Though the old adage “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” is under increasing scrutiny nowadays, for many people the world over the promise of the morning meal is the one thing that can lure them away from the warmth of the covers into the real world. Every aspect of the Japanese lifestyle has been undergoing considerable “modernization” in the past decades, and breakfast is not exempt, with more people choosing to have cereal, waffles, toast and coffee with eggs, or quite often nothing at all. However, the Japanese breakfast is still going strong, from the farms of Hokkaido to the suburbs of Hiroshima, inviting you to start your day with a classical and filling meal.