Popular Japanese Breakfast Dishes
When it comes to the traditional Japanese breakfast, it is completely different to any breakfast in the world. A combination of rice, healthy and omega-rich proteins, as well as some pickles and soup, make for a hearty and energizing affair.
So what exactly can we find in a Japanese breakfast?
The core of every Japanese meal, breakfast included, is ichiju sansai, which translates to “one soup and three dishes”. The usual components are rice, pickles, soup, a main dish, and two side dishes composed of vegetables, tofu, fish, or meat. Another part of breakfast is teishoku, a set meal on a tray, often served at restaurants throughout Japan.
While that does sound like quite a lot of dishes, especially for breakfast, the balance of all these components makes for a nutritious and well-balanced meal, resulting in the human body being able to optimally function. Let’s now take a deeper look at the individual parts of the Japanese breakfast.
Rice is the base of Japanese cuisine. The traditional ichiju sansai does not even mention rice as it is always included in the meal. Rice is not only a dish in itself but the core ingredient which ties everything together. Such is the importance of rice that the phrase gohan (ご飯) means both “rice” and “meal” in Japanese.
Sticky short-grain rice is so vital, and it’s vital to get it right. How well the rice is cooked can make or break a whole meal. When it comes to varieties, there are several different types of grains, which all have different flavors and uses.
White rice (Hakumai) is a short-grain rice that becomes soft and sticky when cooked. The hard outer shell, the rice bran, is removed, and then steamed to make hakumai. This is the most popular way to make rice.
Brown rice (Genmai) is what results when the rice bran is not removed, giving it a brown appearance. It is not as popular as hakumai but has more nutritional value. The outer bran retains much of the vitamins and minerals that are lost during polishing. For this reason, it has been gaining popularity recently.
Multigrain rice includes other grains and seeds added to hakumai. An addition of flavor and nutrients make it a much more hearty and full dish. A common ingredient is barley, also known as mugi gohan.
Finally, glutinous rice (mochigome) is even stickier than hakumai when cooked. It is commonly used in rice cakes, or mocha, as well as in sweets.
There are several ways of preparing and eating rice (so many in fact that we could make a whole other article on it!) Let’s take a look at some of the more popular methods:
Onigiri are balls made from cooked rice, typically wrapped in seaweed (nori). They are seasoned slightly with salt and filled with different ingredients, from tuna mayonnaise to pickled plum (umeboshi). Instead of eating different dishes at breakfast, some people prefer to combine them inside their onigiri. These yummy rice balls are found throughout all convenience stores, restaurants, and izakayas (Japanese bars).
Tamago kake gohan is a common breakfast dish featuring a raw egg mixed into a bowl of rice. It is common for raw eggs to be used in Japanese dishes as they add nutrients, and lend a creamy, rich flavor. Soy sauce is usually added for a salty, umami kick.
Ochazuke is another simple and popular rice dish, consisting of rice with either hot water, green tea, or dashi (stock; see below). It is typically garnished with grilled salmon, pickled plum (umeboshi), and pickles. It can be made using leftover ingredients, or from instant packets sold in supermarkets.
The main protein for a typical Japanese breakfast is grilled fish. Common choices are salmon and mackerel, as they are readily available and are a fantastic source of vitamins, minerals, rich in omega 3.
Grilled salmon can be eaten as is, or flaked into the aforementioned ochazuke. The fish is usually salted and served with a wedge of lemon, making it the perfect nutritious protein to start your day. Mackerel is also typically grilled and served with daikon oroshi (grated horseradish) with a splash of soy sauce. In this case, the horseradish acts as the lemon to the salmon, adding a vibrant and refreshing kick!
In Japanese homes, it is common to have a small grill attached under the gas stove, which makes cooking fish particularly easy and convenient.
Miso soup is a nutrient-rich and key dish in Japanese breakfasts, helping to tie all the other dishes together. Packed with umami, miso soup is made from soybean paste and dashi, steamed rice or barley, salt, and koji (a fermentation starter).
Many types of miso exist. Different ratios of soybeans and rice, and different fermentation periods lead to many changes in flavor, color, and nutrient make-up. The two main color types of miso are red and white, the former being dark, strong, and salty, and the latter less salty and delicate. In addition, you can find a blend of the two, which serves as a great purpose for all recipes!
The aforementioned dashi is a Japanese stock, which is pivotal in many Japanese creations. It’s a relatively simple stock, consisting of kombu kelp and dried bonito flakes, however, there are many variations available. Among the ingredients added are: dried shiitake mushrooms, anchovies, or sardines, giving an extra layer of umami.
Simmering and soaking these ingredients in hot water creates the golden liquid which is the spine of Japanese cuisine. While chicken stock or vegetable stock can be substituted, they lack the distinctive sweet, savory, and deep umami flavor that sets dashi apart.
Pickled vegetables, or tsukemono, cleanse your palate and help reset your mouth after each of the many different textures and flavors that make up your meal. Virtually any vegetable goes, but the most common is cucumber. A variety of pickling methods can be used to create different textures and flavors:
The simplest and most common type of pickle is salt. Just add some for a crisp and mild-flavored vegetable.
Rice Bran (Nukazuke)
This rice bran mixture is made using a variety of ingredients such as salt, kombu, and dried red pepper, which is left for a couple of days or even up to several months. When it’s ready, cover some whole vegetables with the mixture, and leave till salty and tangy.
Similar to nukazuke, you can cover vegetables with miso for a unique, complex flavor.
Soy Sauce (Shoyuzuke)
Here, the vegetables are preserved in a soy sauce-based marinade, which usually contains other ingredients such as kombu. The soy sauce darkens the vegetables and adds a sweet and salty taste.
Amazuzuke is a vinegar solution which preserves vegetables excellently, creating a sweet and sour flavour and a crunchy texture.
Omelette (tamogayaki) is not like the omelettes you will find in Western countries. Here, thin layers of eggs are fried in a special tamogayaki pan to create a rectangular omelette. Eggs are beaten and are often mixed with dashi and sugar, which is then slowly fried in layers, creating a sweet and custardy textured omelette.
The Japanese, adults and children alike, enjoy these at breakfast, and in their bento box (packed lunches).
Loved or hated, Natto is arguably one of Japan’s most unique dishes. It is rich in protein, making it a popular dish in Japan. It uses fermented soybeans mixed with a special variety of bacteria, which creates a unique smell and gives it a sticky texture. It’s usually mixed with a special sauce and Japanese mustard till stringy and gooey.
When you first see natto, you might be put off by the smell and sight, but it will grow on you over time, so give it a try. Place your natto on top of rice for a salty, sweet, tangy flavor. If you’re really too scared, don’t worry. Many Japanese can’t stand it either!
Many people consider tofu somewhat boring and lacking in flavor. Perhaps they haven’t tried it the right way? The Japenese certainly love it, as tofu is popular side dish in many of their meals. It is made from curdled soy milk, pressed into blocks that resemblie cheese. To give it more flavor, tofu is usually topped with a variety of ingredients, such as grated ginger, scallions, and soy sauce.
Whilst many Japanese folk enjoy a traditional breakfast, western breakfasts are also very popular. A mix of small sausages, fried eggs, and bread combine to make a complete, delicious breakfast.
For many people visiting Japan, the idea of grilled fish and natto in the morning isn’t the most appetizing, so western style breakfasts are readily available at hotels all over the country. This breakfast is also popular with Japanese folk too, with many choosing it over their traditional Japanese breakfast.
So, what’s for breakfast?
As we have seen, the Japanese breakfasts are truly unlike any other in the world. Created with care and pride that the Japanese are renowned for, they are full of health benefits, which makes them well worth a try, even if some flavors may seem a little out of the ordinary for some. Which will you try?
Related: Most popular Japanese foods
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Related: 10 best Japanese knives
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Thank you for this – I’m visiting Japan in 2 weeks for the first time. I love breakfast so this has been really helpful. I’ve already heard of Natto and I am keen to try it. The tamogayaki is definitely top of the list and Western breakfast is the last! I intend on making the most of the trip and that includes trying lots of Japanese food.