Breakfast done the traditional Japanese way

Claire Wiltshire 10 October 2008

Young and savvy breakfast goers in Japan are wising up to the ease of grabbing some take-away coffee and toast on the way to work. In cosmopolitan environments where convenience is key, fruit toast, juice and yogurt are now commonplace. Despite the prevalence of American-style coffee houses and McDonald's breakfast menus, traditional style breakfasts remain an enduring and extremely nutritious choice.

The approach to eating in Japan differs greatly from other cultures. Rather than tucking into a single plate of food, diners usually indulge in an array of small dishes that are enjoyed for their individual merits. A bit of preparation time is therefore involved, so if you're planning on making your own Japanese breakfast, get up extra early!

‘Miso soup, rice and vegies don't cook in ten minutes like toast, so people today often don't go to the trouble of having it,' explains Cibi co-owner and food-lover, Meg Tanaka. ‘Someone has to cook and prepare it all from scratch and that was traditionally mum or grandma's job.'

The sharing of breakfast with the family is part of the whole experience where children, working parents and grandparents have a chance to slow down and enjoy food and time together, before getting on with the day. It is easier to access a lot of fresh produce in country settings, which is another reason some city people miss out on the essential ingredients.

Rice is the staple food in Japan so much so that the term for meal, gohan, can also be translated as rice. A bowl of steamed white or brown rice complements all dishes, including breakfast, though Meg suggests the best rice is not necessarily simple or quick to prepare.

A cleansing bowl of miso soup is an important part of the first meal of the day and is served as a side dish to rice. People in different parts of the country may have their own unique method of preparation as Meg explains.

‘Miso soup is like a Japanese version of minestrone- lots of vegetables with mum's (or grandmother's) love. Just as each family or region in Italy uses different minestrone ingredients and flavours, Japanese miso soup also varies.'

Fish also features, but rather than serving it sushi style, breakfast menus offer a grilled or baked salmon in a glaze alongside strips of nori (dried seaweed) that can be dipped in soy and wrapped around small portions of rice.

Egg fans can indulge in Japanese-style omelette of the sweet variety.  Known as tomago yaki, it is cooked in a rectangle shaped pan with dashi (stock), mirin (rice wine) and sometimes sake, resulting in quite a distinctive flavour.

The key to a nutritional Japanese breakfast is variety and the use of very fresh ingredients. Meg emphasises simplicity of flavour is also important. ‘The balance of food makes the breakfast so healthy,' explains Meg. ‘Seasonal vegetables are naturally good for you and they are real food. Dishes are cooked simply, delicately and sensibly, without much seasoning. We use good ingredients and maximise their individual flavours.'

Natto is something of an acquired taste and is a popular addition to breakfast in some regions of Japan. The Western palate can be somewhat averse to the piquant flavour, not to mention the stringy, spider-web-like texture of the fermented soy-bean dish, but the brave will be rewarded with health benefits that allegedly include great skin and protection against heart problems, osteoporosis and stroke.

Short of taking an eight-hour aeroplane ride to the island nation, a Japanese breakfast can be hard to come across and preparing your own traditional dish may take up too many precious morning hours, so if you prefer your breakfasts out, stop in at Cibi in Collingwood and let Meg cook you up a proper asagohan.


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