That fancy spread of a breakfast you had at your ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) or at your hotel is probably not representative of what most Japanese have every single morning. You might be surprised though that some of the elements of that breakfast are enjoyed on a daily basis. Breakfast choices depend on people’s personal preferences and lifestyles. Here below are 5 types of absolutely real Japanese breakfasts.
1. The Day Laborer’s Breakfast
This is perhaps the simplest, and to many Japanese, the most comfortingly satisfying of breakfasts. Called tamago gohan or tamago kake gohan in Japanese, it consists of only two ingredients: a raw egg and rice. A dash of soy sauce is added. This is the only time that Japanese will pour soy sauce over rice (barring sushi which they might dip in soy sauce), unlike the Western habit of using soy sauce liberally at the table to flavor plain rice. Cooking the rice with a piece of konbu to add a deeper flavor to it, or topping your bowl with sesame seeds for a nutty touch are optional. These days, there are lot of soy sauces marketed just for tamago gohan, but the very first specialty soy sauce named Otamahan was developed in 2002 in the small mountain village Yoshida, in Iishi-gun in Shimane Prefecture. It is also the venue of the annual “Japanese Tamago Kake Gohan Symposium” (yes, they’re that serious about tamago gohan). The first symposium was in a 3-day event in October 2005 attended by 2,500 people all over Japan. They’re now on their 13th year.
It is cheap, quick and simple to prepare. Eggs are highly nutritious and rich in protein, and they sustain you through the morning. Foreigners might be queasy about consuming a raw egg due to fears of salmonella (bacteria in chicken’s intestines that possibly attach to egg shells through chicken poop). It is reassuring to know that Japanese egg farmers carefully wash their eggs and that most Japanese eggs are sterilized before they are packed as they expect buyers to consume them raw. Nonetheless, if you wish to try this dish, use fresh eggs and check for cracks. Or for an expert take on this comfort food, visit this restaurant in Hyogo Prefecture. The one item on their menu? You guessed it, tamago gohan!
2. The Kid’s Breakfast
There is a reason why onigiri or rice balls (triangle shaped ones are more accurately called omusubi) are a staple of Japanese children’s bentos or lunch boxes. I haven’t met a kid who did not like the Japanese equivalent of a sandwich. There are so many ways to vary this humble onigiri/omusubi breakfast. You can choose from an assortment of possible fillings. Just look at what is offered in the onigiri section of any convenience store or supermarket: grilled salmon, tuna mayonnaise salad, spicy roe, savory ground chicken, pickled vegetables and plums, fermented soybeans. You can even get creative. I know someone who grills her onigiri with cheese and soy sauce, which I suppose is the Japanese answer to grilled cheese sandwich. The Japanese swear that the best ones are made by hand. Wet your hands, rub them with a bit of salt, and try not to pack the rice too hard. Complete this breakfast with a bowl of miso soup.
As the name implies, this breakfast could pass for someone’s lunch or dinner, but one important feature of a traditional Japanese breakfast like the one pictured above is that it is fairly light — no greasy, deep fried, or overly rich items, and the portions can be adjusted (less rice? Okay!). This breakfast typically includes a bowl of rice, miso soup, protein (one or combination of the following: fish, grilled eggs, tofu natto or fermented soybeans), vegetables (one or a combination of fresh salad, pickles, or tsukudani or simmered vegetables).
This hearty breakfast need not be a pain to prepare. A lot of Japanese moms simply use last night’s leftovers and serve them again for breakfast. Most families have leftover rice warming anyway in the rice cooker, and a jar of obaachan’s (grandma’s) homemade pickled vegetables or plums sitting in the refrigerator. Miso soup can be easy to prepare if you have the miso paste on hand. All components of this breakfast from the grilled fish to fermented soybeans to simmered vegetables can be purchased in ready-to-eat small packets from any supermarket and convenience store in the refrigerated section. This breakfast goes best with a cup of green tea.
4. The Healthy Lady’s Breakfast
Fruits and vegetables are the star of this type of breakfast. I’m not being gender biased. Polls on Japanese people’s breakfasts reveal that women tend to eat more fruits and vegetables for breakfast than men who seem to prefer meat and fish. Some even go so far as to make their own fruit and vegetable smoothies from scratch with their home blender, I’m not kidding! People who tend to have this breakfast might supplement the fruits and/or vegetables with a piece of toast with butter or marmalade, or a tub of yogurt. This type of breakfast goes well with a cup of coffee or English tea. Should there be soup, it will most likely be some creamy potage. To foreigners, this might look like the healthy cousin of the Continental breakfast, healthy due to the blatant absence of bacon (or other processed pork products) and oily fried eggs. Characteristics of this breakfast: light and refreshing.
5. The On the Go Breakfast
This is as real as it gets, though I doubt people’s on the go breakfast looks as good as the one pictured above (7-11’s donuts are, in reality, individually plastic wrapped), so you will unlikely find photos of this type of breakfast on Instagram or Facebook. Many who hurry off to work endure long commute hours and don’t have time to sit down for the first meal of the day. For these people, coffee seems to be the drink of choice. According to the book The Essence of Japanese Cuisine: An Essay on Food and Culture (by Michael Ashkenazi and Jeanne Jacob), coffee ranks today as Japan’s top drink, based on the amount drunk, the number of places one can drink, and the quality of the drink.
Coffee outranks tea and even beer. It is not difficult to find gourmet specialties like Jamaican Blue Mountain and Hawaiian Kona throughout Japan. If you’re simply looking for a wake-up drink and have no time for epicurian treats, convenience store machine brewed coffee is not bad. Japan’s convenience stores carry a wide selection of high quality breakfast items for busy people. Yes, there are donuts but there are also many other healthier options to go with your cup of joe.
Which breakfast would you like to try?