It shouldn’t come as any surprise, but a traditional Japanese breakfast could not be more different from the Western coffee-and-pastry on the run. In fact, a visitor from overseas might think it looks and feels more like dinner. The first meal of the day in Japan is more elegant in every way — from portion size to nutritional philosophy.
Here are the elements you can expect to find in a typical, beautifully balanced Japanese breakfast (waffles and syrup most definitely not included).
Steamed white rice
It’s the starchy staple of most meals in Japan, but particularly breakfast since rice carries the weight and flavors of the other items on the tray, especially the proteins. Rice is sometimes topped with bonito flakes (dried, fermented fish shavings) or even uni (sea urchin).
Raw or lightly cooked, eggs — often seasoned with flavorful furikake, a salty seasoning — are often served atop the rice. However, eggs are sometimes cooked as a rectangular-shaped omelet (tamagoyaki) and served on the side.
Simply salted and then broiled or pan-seared, fish is the primary protein of choice to power people through their day. Typical selections are salmon and mackerel, but canned tuna is a common option as well. It’s about packing in protein, not getting fancy.
Soup warms the body and awakens the senses — no matter if it’s the morning or the kickoff to a larger meal later in the day. Though it’s common to see tofu, mushrooms or seaweed in the mix, a simple dashi broth with miso is the usual fare.
Vegetables and fruit
Pickled (tsukemono), fresh or both, vegetables provide the essential nutritional element of breakfast. Pickled plums are a popular option, often served over the steamed rice.
Natto is, shall we say, natto for everyone. But the Japanese love fermented soybeans. Sticky and incredibly pungent, as well as protein-rich, natto tends to be an acquired taste for Western palates. You can enjoy its nutritional benefits yet mellow out its earthy flavor by mixing it into the steamed rice and adding an egg yolk.