What a shock it was to open my eyes to salty seaweed tea and dried fish the first time I stayed in an old-fashioned ryokan, the traditional Japanese inn. I had taken in stride the ritual bath using shared bathwater and the changing of the slippers at the bathroom door but seaweed for breakfast was another matter.
Typically, miso soup and rice are the Japanese breakfast mainstays. With them there are likely to be a small piece of broiled fish; a greasy, room-temperature sunny-side-up egg or a cold omelet; colorful crunchy pickled vegetables; rectangles of seasoned nori seaweed; a pitcher of soy sauce; and a cup of tea.
Wrapped in a blue and white printed yukata, I sat on a cushion on the tatami mat on the floor to eat. To my delight, I found the meal (except the egg) delicious. That's not surprising, I suppose, for someone who grew up on breakfasts that regularly included smoked fish and a variety of olives, but even the traditional ham-and-egger might be pleasantly surprised by a Japanese breakfast.
Furthermore, the precise art of the Japanese breakfast is within the abilities of most cooks and the necessary ingredients are readily available in Oriental grocery stores. It is important to use a Japanese soy sauce such as Kikkoman or San-J brewed tamari, both of which are made in low-sodium versions. Seasoned nori strips are sold ready to eat. And while dashi is not hard to prepare, most cooks, even in Japan, buy the instant packages. Chicken stock is a good substitute.
The key point to keep in mind is that Japanese meals are designed not only to be nutritious and filling but also for flavor and eye appeal. Using inexpensive rattan trays, basic blue and white rice bowls, covered lacquer soup bowls and bamboo chopsticks, it is possible to make a lovely presentation of the meal.
Breakfast includes all the basic flavorings of Japanese cooking: soy sauce, sake (rice wine), sugar and dashi (kelp and dried bonito soup stock). Condiments such as pickled ginger, pickled daikon and pickled umeboshi plums are believed to "aid digestion" and "to keep the intestinal tract clear," writes master chef Shizuo Tsuji in his authoritative "Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art" (Kodansha, 1982). He explains, too, that people consider their "strong acid-salty flavor ... fresh and cleansing in the morning."
Some American hotels (including the Washington Hilton and the Westin) serve Japanese breakfasts to accommodate the growing number of Japanese business travelers. Such offerings are also a chance for the American cook open to new tastes to try a Japanese breakfast.
When I serve a Japanese breakfast, I must admit, I take some liberty with tradition: I include dishes, usually egg preparations, that ordinarily would appear on the lunch or dinner table but which I think taste good in the morning.
My favorite is chawan mushi, egg custard that includes shrimp or fish, chicken and vegetables. It is commonly eaten at sushi bars but is easy to make at home and not too exotic to eat in the morning. Also tasty are tamago donburi (boiled rice topped with egg), steamed egg "tofu" (egg made into smooth cakes like beancurd) and rolled omelets seasoned with dashi, soy sauce and mirin (sweet cooking wine).
Another possibility is okonomi yaki, thick and spicy pancakes made of batter mixed with meat or seafood and chopped vegetables. Also good is tsukimi soba, noodles in fish broth covered by dried seaweed and topped with a sunny-side-up egg. Because the egg suggests the moon at harvest time, the dish goes by the poetic name Autumn Moon Viewing.
Pair an egg dish with miso soup, rice, grilled salmon and assorted pickles for a lovely Japanese-inspired beginning to the day.
MISO SOUP (4 servings)
Miso is fermented bean paste that has been a protein-rich dietary staple in Japan for centuries. There is a nearly infinite variety of miso pastes that range from sweet to very salty and from smooth to chunky. The darker red types tend to be salty, while white miso is sweet.
Though there are several serviceable miso soup mixes on the market, it is quick and easy to make from scratch. Miso soup is the "chicken soup" of Japan. And just as every good Jewish mother has her own version of the traditional cure-all, so every Japanese mother has her favorite miso paste for making soup.
4 dried black shiitake mushrooms
4 cups dashi or chicken stock
1 teaspoon soy sauce
4 tablespoons red miso paste, or more to taste
1/2 cake soft beancurd, cut in small cubes
1 scallion, finely chopped
Soak mushrooms 15 minutes in boiling water to cover. Discard stems and slice caps. Heat stock and add soy sauce. In a small bowl, beat together 4 tablespoons of stock and miso paste. Slowly stir mixture into simmering stock. Add mushrooms and beancurd and simmer 4 minutes. Do not boil. Garnish with scallion.
Per serving: 65 calories, 7 gm protein, 5 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, .4 gm saturated fat, 1 mg cholesterol, 992 mg sodium.
HOTEL PIERRE'S SALT-GRILLED SALMON (2 servings)
2 five-ounce salmon fillets with skin, each sliced into a 2-by-5-inch piece that is 1 inch thick in center
Handful of salt
1 small daikon radish, grated
Lemon wedges, for garnish
Pickled turnip, for garnish
Sprinkle salmon with a handful of salt and let stand 3 hours. Wash well and dry thoroughly. Score skin. Thread each fillet lengthwise on two skewers. Place skin side down on a hot grill and cook until half done, about 5 minutes. Turn and grill until done, about 4 minutes longer. Remove skewers and serve with daikon, lemon and turnip, traditional garnishes for fish.
Per serving: 263 calories, 39 gm protein, .2 gm carbohydrates, 11 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 70 mg cholesterol, 2216 mg sodium.
ORIENTAL-FLAVORED FRUIT MEDLEY (6 servings)
Gordon Marr, executive chef at the Washington Hilton hotel, who developed the Japanese breakfast served there, suggests including an Oriental-inspired fresh fruit salad.
2 cups sliced strawberries
1 cup raspberries
1 papaya, peeled, seeded and diced (or substitute cantaloupe or honeydew)
1 mango, peeled, seeded and diced (or substitute peaches)
2 kiwi fruit, peeled and diced (or substitute pears)
1/2 cup seedless grapes (or substitute plums)
1/2 cup honey, or to taste
Juice of 3 limes
2 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro (coriander) leaves
Combine fruits in a bowl. Beat together honey, lime juice, ginger, cinnamon and cilantro. Pour over fruit and allow to marinate 1 hour or longer depending on ripeness of fruit. The riper the fruit, the shorter the marinating time should be because the dressing will break down ripe fruit.
Per serving: 167 calories, 1 gm protein, 42 gm carbohydrates, 0 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 6 mg sodium.
CHAWAN MUSHI (Savory Egg Custard) (4 servings)
4 small dried shiitake mushrooms
2 ounces chicken breast meat
4 small shrimp, shelled
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Small bunch lettuce, spinach or watercress
8 canned ginko nuts, optional
1 teaspoon sake
2 1/2 cups dashi or chicken stock
Salt, to taste
4 slices lemon rind for garnish
Soak mushrooms in hot water to cover 15 minutes. Discard stems but leave caps whole. Slice chicken paper thin. Sprinkle shrimp with half of the soy sauce. Wash and chop green vegetable. Rinse ginko nuts and drain well. Beat eggs in a large bowl. Stir in remaining soy sauce, sake, stock and salt. Divide mushrooms, chicken, shrimp and ginko nuts among 4 heatproof 1-cup bowls. Add egg mixture, cover with aluminum foil and set in a pot of boiling water. Cover pot and simmer until mixture is set, 15 to 20 minutes. Or place bowls in a deep roasting pan half filled with boiling water and bake in a preheated 425-degree oven until set, about 1/2 hour. Remove bowls from water and place on plates. Uncover and garnish with lemon rind. Serve hot or cold.
Per serving: 144 calories, 16 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 298 mg cholesterol, 835 mg sodium.
Gail Forman teaches English at Montgomery College and is a freelance writer.