When I first moved to Japan, I initially struggled with what to eat for breakfast. Having visited once before on vacation, I knew of the elaborate multi-plate breakfasts served at ryokan, but I had no clue what the average person fueled herself with every morning.
Wandering down the aisles of a Japanese grocery store for the first time, I realized my choices would be limited if I wanted to eat familiar foods first thing in the morning. Cereals and the like were few and far between, not to mention woefully expensive. At the time, the choice seemed obvious: toast! Most stores carried several varieties of super-soft, thickly sliced white bread along with a variety of jams, spreads, and flavored “creams.”
Yet it soon became apparent that this option was simply not satisfying – it was January in the Japanese alps, and I craved something warm, something to soothe the ache of being far from home. Oatmeal was, to the best of my knowledge, unattainable, so I bought the next best thing. Thus began the winter of barley and bananas. Let me spare you the details. It was bleak.
I knew perfectly well that I was capable of making a simple Japanese breakfast – soup, rice, some pickles, perhaps himono – but something in me rebelled. One’s first meal of the day demands a certain adherence to familiarity, comfort, and routine, not to mention expedience. It’s a deeply ritualistic meal whose bonds hold fast no matter where in the world one wakes up.
Even now, going on two years in Japan, my breakfasts revolve around some combination of starch-dairy-fruit. They are simple enough and delicious enough (and now that I’ve discovered a excellent source for rye bread, they’re also healthy enough). Yet after too many of these meals in a row, a certain heavy-lidded sluggishness had begun to creep into my mornings.
One recent Sunday, inspired in part by the lovingly photographed breakfasts over at this blog, I decided to it was time for a change.
Before departing for a quick run (jog? shuffle?), I made some preparations, thinly slicing cucumber and myōga, setting up a plate of pickles and condiments (from top right: cucumbers and ginger pickled with shiso, fukinotō miso, and barley-eggplant miso), and preparing a pot of green tea to be cold-brewed. Warm rice from the previous night’s dinner was still in the cooker, and some leftover blanched green beans were tucked away in the fridge.
The rest came together quickly: I drizzled silken tofu with ponzu, dressed the salads (the cucumbers and myōga with my latest guilty pleasure, the green beans with a bracing miso-vinegar sauce I’d made the night before), and fried an egg. Fragrant and crisp after a bath in sesame oil, the egg got some extra verve from a dusting of damp sea salt and shichimi togarashi.
It was not Japanese breakfast in the most traditional sense, as it included neither fish nor soup, but it was salty and sour and sustaining, enough to lift even the most leaden of eyelids. And it awakened me to the possibilities of breakfasts yet uneaten, tastes not yet conquered, a new ritual in the making.