I practice a simple breakfast ritual. I like to have a piece of toast, preferably dense bread like a pain de mie. I spread it with generous amounts of butter, using my grandmother’s old butter knife with the rounded point. An occasional poached egg, maybe with some tomato-chili salsa leftover from last night’s dinner? Even better. But what really ignites my morning engine and shifts me into first gear is a bowl of miso soup, a classic breakfast soup in Japan. The daughter of Japanese parents, I was born in New York and raised in Tokyo, Kamakura, San Francisco and Mexico City. I straddle East and West, but when it comes to breakfast, no matter how eclectic, the Japanese component brings me to my comfort zone.
Recently, my breakfast ritual took a sharp turn East, when soba master, Akila Inouye from Tokyo stayed with us for nearly three weeks. He and I taught more than a dozen soba-making classes in my Santa Monica home. I have held cooking classes before, but had never done anything with flour and water on such a scale. I often found myself scraping buckwheat flour dough off the hardwood floors and washing mixing bowls way past midnight. But no matter how busy we were, Akila got up at dawn to make a full Japanese breakfast. “It feels like I never left Japan,” he said.
What is a traditional Japanese breakfast? Besides miso soup (see recipe below), there must be rice, and then as many side dishes as you like. What you are looking for is nutritional balance and simplicity. Bread, which was introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries and trades people in the 16th century, doesn’t appear on a traditional Japanese breakfast menu. For Akila, bread is like emergency food — he enjoys it, but eats it mainly when he runs out of rice. I am quite the opposite. I love rice but can happily make a crusty baguette my entire meal.
During Akila’s stay, however, my consumption of rice multiplied by the bowls full. He cooked four cups of rice every other day. It was always on standby in the rice cooker. The rice saved us when we got to be so busy with the workshops and had made no plans for dinner. Akila would also make fried rice. It was so good, I could eat it for breakfast too.
Miso soup can be whipped up in a few minutes if you have dashi, the stock, on hand. We often had dashi left over from the workshop, so all we had to do was add the miso and a combination of seasonal vegetables, seaweed, meat, seafood and tofu. Even made from scratch, miso soup is quick — dashi takes less than 15 minutes to pull together, compared to chicken stock, which takes hours. Back in February, Akila and I had made miso. It still needed to age a little so we blended it with a more mature miso for our soup. The fun of making miso soup can be in the blending and in coming up with your own favorite flavor.
Thinking about tomorrow: breakfast and bento
A wise Japanese home cook will prepare dinner with the next day’s breakfast and bento box in mind. When the leftover braised duck with ginger, or the shishito peppers and shrimp tempura Akila and I made during the workshops appeared on the table the next morning, I was elated. I often serve grilled fish, like salmon, with a Japanese breakfast. Other typical ingredients include nori to wrap the rice; fermented soybeans called natto, which are slimy, strong smelling and nutty; and pickled plums, or umeboshi. Natto is a vital source of protein in the Japanese diet and is readily available at Japanese markets. It is believed that an umeboshi a day keeps the doctor away. Both natto and umeboshi may take a bit of practice to appreciate, but give them a try. They are full of nutrients. I also like to have some fruit with plain yogurt with my breakfast. Japanese breakfast feels like dinner, but it’s never heavy or fatty. Consider the low rate of obesity in Japan. Eating a wholesome breakfast may have something to do with it.
During Akila’s visit, I’d sometimes wake up with bread cravings. I once snuck out to Huckleberry, my neighborhood bakery, for a scone to satisfy my bread fix. The one time that we dined out at an Italian restaurant, I practically finished the entire bread basket by myself. And after Akila left, I pulled out my toaster and my grandmother’s butter knife and went back to eating toast for breakfast again. But I also make traditional Japanese breakfast whenever I have fresh steamed rice on hand. With my bowl of miso soup, eclectic in one world, traditional in another, I am in my comfort zone.
Heirlooom Tomato and Tofu Miso Soup
3½ cups dashi (see recipe below)
3½ to 4 tablespoons Mugi, Koji, white or red miso
1 tomato (cut in quarters, then slice each quarter crosswise into ½-inch thick pieces)
½ square of soft tofu
2 green onions, sliced thinly
- Bring the dashi to a boil in a medium saucepan, then reduce the heat to maintain simmer.
- In a small bowl, dissolve 3½ tablespoons of the miso paste in a few tablespoons of the warm dashi. Add the mixture to the saucepan. Taste and add more miso paste, dashi or water, depending on how strong the soup tastes.
- Add the tomato and tofu, and simmer for 1 minute. Turn off heat.
- Pour the soup into individual bowls.
- Sprinkle each bowl with chopped green onion. Serve immediately
This dashi, which will keep for five days in the refrigerator, can be used for miso soup, suimono, ohitashi and other dashi-based sauces. Bonito flakes and dashi kombu can be found at Japanese markets.
- Using scissors, make several crosswise cuts in the konbu. This helps to extract the flavor during cooking.
- Place konbu and water in medium saucepan and let stand 15 minutes. Cook on medium heat until water is about to boil, then remove kombu (this will prevent a fishy odor).
- When the water boils, turn off the heat and add ½ cup of cold water. Let liquid cool down for a couple of minutes then gently add bonito flakes. Do not stir.
- When bonito flakes have settled near the bottom, about 3 minutes, strain them through a very fine-mesh sieve or a sieve lined with cheesecloth and discard them. Don’t stir the stock because it will cloud the dashi, which should have a light golden color.
Sonoko Sakai is a Japanese freelance writer and film producer who divides her time between Tokyo and Santa Monica. She has contributed stories and recipes to the Los Angeles Times, the former Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Saveur and Bungei Shunju (Japan). She is passionate about making soba by hand, and with master chef Akila Inouye of the Tsukiji Soba Academy, has created MazuMizu to teach Japanese home-cooking in Japan and abroad.
Photos, from top:
Japanese breakfast: rice topped with seasoned ground chicken and cut nori, umeboshi and pickled daikon, napa cabbage salad, nameko mushrooms and tofu miso soup
Japanese breakfast with salmon and, clockwise from left: carrot and cabbage salad, rice, tamagoyaki, yogurt with raspberry puree, umeboshi, daikon miso soup.
Heirloom tomato, tofu and miso soup
Credits: Sonoko Sakai