"The only real stumbling block is the fear of failure. In cooking, you have got to have a what-the-hell attitude." ~ Julia Child

Japanese Breakfast: Take 1

by Julie Tilsner on September 28, 2006

in Minor Miracles, Soups


I’ve been wanting to try my hand at making a Japanese breakfast for a while now, ever since getting a book called, “Japanese Women Don’t get Fat or Old.” Apart from the title, which cracked me up because it’s a snarky take-off on the bestseller “French Women Don’t get Fat,” I got the book because I love Japanese food and figure that since millions of Japanese women cook this stuff at home, why can’t I? I also have been wanting to eat better in general, as part of my ongoing midlife crisis overhaul. Be present. Be content. Stop smoking. Cut down on sugar. Eat better. Practice your inversions.

Eat better. Last time I had a Japanese breakfast I was, not surprisingly, in Japan. We all went to Kobe to attend the nuptials of my brother David to the fabulous Hiromi-chan. The hotel we stayed in offered a choice of buffet-style eating in the a.m. – Western Style or Japanese. I realized long ago, on one of my first trips to Japan, that it’s best to live by the When in Rome credo when it comes to eating. Why would I want the Japanese approximation of a western breakfast (which always included runny scrambled eggs, the whitest of white bread toast, wrong hash browns and a refreshing, space-aged glass of Tang,) when I could revel in what the Japanese do best – which is delightfully presented portions of fresh fish, pickled vegetable, aromatic green tea and a steaming bowl of rice. I suppose this doesn’t appeal to everyone. But to me it’s a no brainer. Naturally I’ll eat a Japanese breakfast any chance I get. It sates, but doesn’t fill you up. There’s no sugar high so there’s no corresponding sugar crash. And you don’t get hungry for a long time.

There are a lot of upsides to eating more Japanese, not the least of which are that it’s healthier than my default bagel and blended mocha. It’s healthier. I’d feel better. My daughter would eat a Japanese breakfast. If I were the sort of mother who could get up 30 minutes before she does to cook it for her, I’m sure she’d appreciate it. This would be hard because I’m not that kind of mother, and Annie is an early bird, rising on her own at 6 or so every morning no matter how little sleep she’s had. But there’s no reason I can’t do a practice run in the middle of the day when she’s at school and I should be writing.

Tony says he’d love to eat more Japanese because it doesn’t upset his stomach. I could make him a Japanese breakfast, but honestly, I think he’s more talk than action. Seaweed and miso? He’d punk out, I know it. But then he can be goaded into trying new things.

I made him eat an octopus tentacle at Asenabo in Studio City the other night. Not a tentacle,exactly, but a suction cup, to be precise. A tiny little white teacup with purple rim. Raw octopus. I asked the sushi chef, the one who looks just like my flamenco teacher, to make me what he wanted, because I’ve read somewhere that that’s what you’re supposed to do at a sushi restaurant and it makes the chef happy, and plus I wanted to prove that I’m no wimp, I can consume sushi like a pro. And I prayed he wouldn’t serve uni, which is sea urchin, and which was once described to me as tasting like rancid mustard that had been sitting in a bucket of sea water for a week. And fortunately, he didn’t. But he did give me octopus, which I’ve had in the past, and which I know to be very chewy but otherwise fairly tasteless, and so I’m game to put the item in my mouth.

Tony, though. Another matter. Although born and raised in Los Angeles, he’d only been hipped to sushi a few years ago, and is a man who likes to play it safe and close to his chest. So I did what you have to do with Spanish men. I played on his machismo.

“Eat this,” I said.

“No way.”

“Come on. Be a man. What are you? Afraid?”

He looked at me sideways like he does and I knew I had him. Glowering at me, he opened his mouth and took the little cup from my chopstick. He chewed once. Swallowed.

“There,” I said. “Now you can say you’ve tried something new. You should try something new every day. You’ve just eaten your first octopus suction cup. That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Man. He could stop a bull with that look. He muttered an obscenity in Spanish. Something about my mother.

But I digress.Japanesebreakfast

My Japanese breakfast would be basic and traditional. Rice, miso soup, some nori (seaweed) slices and a bit of grilled fish. I’d have to forgoe the delicious pickled bits for now. There’s a way to make them yourself but that’s not something a bad home cook should attempt on her own. I wanted to approximate the kind of breakfast I enjoyed in Japan. The sort of repast first introduced to me on my first trip there, lo these many moons ago when I was but a lass of 16.

Miso soup is the staple item around which everything else in the breakfast is wrapped. The Japanese drink it every day for breakfast. I’d like to do the same, but that means I have to learn how to make it easily by myself. I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to food – I vastly prefer making my own to opening a packet and adding water. Even though adding water is a damn sight more certain to turn out in my kitchen, I insist on learning how to make basic items myself. Until I do, I don’t make it in the morning for anybody.

However, I’m unclear on the basics of making my own miso soup. When I go to Marukai, the Japanese supermarket in Gardena (and Little Tokyo), I never know whether to get the white miso or the red miso. Often it’s not clear on the label (certainly not in English, either), so I go by color and hope for the best. I’m not clear on measurements, either. One heaping tablespoon of miso per cup of water? I don’t know. And water, or dashi, which is a Japanese soup stock I haven’t made yet because I don’t have the right kind of seaweed….I suppose I could buy it, but often times the stuff you buy is loaded with MSG, which gives me such a headache…
I decided to be organized, and experiment. Here’s how I made the soup this morning:

Three tablespoons (rough) low-sodium miso. I think it’s red.
Three cups water.
½ package bonito flakes
½ cup kudzu
two chopped scallions
diced, extra firm tofu.

My mother-in-law is a rebirther in London and is the kind of tidy, exacting woman I long to be. When she makes her miso soup, she always ads a concoction of kudzu (arrowroot) dissolved in cold water to “hold” the soup, and her soup, I must add, always turns out well. Soup I made without this step once turned out too watery. After I dissolve the miso in the water, I add the kudzu concoction.

I added the bonito flakes when I realized I should have made dashi and used that instead of water to give it the proper flavor. But after simmering for 5 or 10 minutes I decided I should strain the bonito flakes out of the liqu
id. This I did using cheesecloth because I couldn’t find my big strainer. Always wanted to use cheesecloth for straining. I mean, I have the cheesecloth in my knife drawer, just in case I should get ambitious and try to cook something that requires my using cheesecloth for some aspect of the preparation. So I decided to use it for this. But in typical fashion, I bollixed it all up. I cut the cheesecloth wrong and didn’t get enough of it to cover the bowl. I cut another swatch and the whole things tumbled from my hands to the floor, unraveling as it went. I wasn’t able to pull the cloth taut across the bowl, so when I poured in the soup the bonito flakes, which now strongly resembled something a child pukes up on her pillow at 3 a.m., burbled out and down and largely back into the soup. There was a lot of dripping as well. I could feel the eyes of a thousand old Japanese Okasan spirits watching me with bemused disgust. I know the making of this soup should be serene and as easy as making tea. I didn’t think this was the way it was supposed to work, yet here I was in the middle of it, so I had to stay the course.
I eventually strained out most of the bonito flakes, and put the liquid back into the pot.

I cut the scallions. I cubed tofu. More or less.

I bought little salmon fillets at Marukai, but I don’t have a grill. Note to self: get off the stick and buy one of those clever iron grills I can set on the stove top. So I spray an iron skillet with canola oil, heat it up, and quick fry the salmon.

Rice. I can actually make rice. For someone who makes the most embarrassing mistakes in the kitchen, I have an uncanny knack for the perfect pot of rice. I use the Japanese style rice today – 1 and ½ cups to 2 cups water, bring to a boil, lower heat, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.

The results? It took almost an hour to make this meal. Too long to do realistically in the cramped morning hour, when I’m trying to bomb my little boy out of bed, monitor what my daughter is trying to wear to school (“It’s cold! Put on long pants!) and get a little something called food into me. But I suspect I could streamline the production enough to pull it off one day. Will I? Nah.

The miso soup turned out surprisingly decent but still, not *quite* right. I did drink the whole bowl, which was a vast improvement over my last attempt, which was so salty I took one sip and threw the rest down the drain. The gold standard test was Annie’s eating a bowl of it that afternoon. You can’t sneak bad-tasting miso past a 9-year-old. I’ll say it was a qualified success. Next time I’ll make some dashi and try it with that as the base stock. I’ve got some daikon rotting in my vegetable crisper as we speak.

The salmon didn’t taste like it did in the hotel in Japan, not surprisingly, but it was ok. It tasted like …salmon. It’s very hard to mess up salmon, although I’ve been known to do so, usually by woefully overcooking it. Maybe there were some seasonings involved that I don’t know about. It would help to have that grill.

My nori was stale. Damnit. That’s what happens when you take out that little packet of freshener so the five-year-old won’t steal it and put it in his bath. I can’t seem to keep my seaweed stashes fresh.

The rice was fine. The green tea, (gen-mai cha – green tea and brown rice) was perfect, although it’s tedious to clean out my old silver tea pot and it makes ensuing cups of tea (of the non-green sort) taste like green tea. Oh well. A small price to pay.

I’ll fine-tune all of this on another date. Stay tuned.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Willa April 26, 2007 at 10:20 pm

Wow- you are an ambitious woman! I’ve made Korean food at home, but not in the morning, AND the actual Koreans living here laughed at it. I have to say, I like cultures in which you eat pretty much the same thing for breakfast as you do the rest of the day.


Sid Khullar December 1, 2007 at 7:26 pm

We’ve been trying to switch to oriential cuisine for precisely the same reason – all of ‘them’ look trim and healthy – all ages, all the time!
Our cuisine of choice at the moment is Korean, since Chinese seems to involve too much frying and Japanese ingredients are hard to get here, especially, the fresh fresh fish.
Lets see. 🙂


Quon-chan March 13, 2008 at 2:56 am

I think I stumbled onto this blog by accident… but I’m glad I did! Mighty entertaining (and funny)! And it’s awesome to see a fellow enthusiast of Japanese cuisine. I’m curious to see if there was ever a ‘Take 2’ of this breakfast attempt. =)


Marie July 8, 2008 at 9:05 am

2 tips!
1. Miso soup: when I make miso, I start with a small amount of the paste and taste it, then add, then taste, then add, then taste, etc. That way you don’t get an over salty miso…
2. Salmon: Easiest way to cook salmon is to use a toaster oven (if you have one). Lightly wrap the salmon in aluminum foil, then “toast” at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, give or take. The foil keeps in the moisture and the toaster oven keeps it fast. Plus, easy clean-up.
This is how my Japanese mom makes both of these, and now I do it too… and I’m quite a bad home cook myself, but these always turn out great.


ThomCat September 19, 2008 at 8:51 am

I love your humor, and I am actually going to give this a try.. I’m so addicted to sushi/sashimi and love miso..


Francesco December 26, 2008 at 5:48 am

I found this blog post by searching on Google about Japanese breakfast home-cooking. My wife is Japanese but more a night-owl than an early-bird, and I also tend to wake up at the last minute before running to the office, but I love a good Japanese breakfast. It does make you feel better all day and gives you just the right amount of energy to face a busy day.
I usually eat it when we are in Japan or, here in New York area, when we go to Mitsuwa, a fairly large Japanese shopping center in New Jersey, very close to Manhattan (in fact you can have this breakfast from a nice food court that has a large window overlooking Manhattan on the other side of the Hudson river).
Miso soup: you need to get a miso strainer (http://www.asianutensils.com/misostrainer.html) to be able to dissolve completely the paste in the water. The white miso is more typical in Japan, the darker red/brown one is typical of Nagoya, my wife’s home town, and has a much more distinct flavor. White is easier for children and non-asian people I would say, although I really like them both (but then again I am not the kind of italian that goes abroad with a box of spaghetti in the luggage, if you know what i mean, heheheh…)
Regarding the salmon, I understand that the salmon is not just plain salmon but salted one. I am not sure how to prepare it myself from regular salmon and this was the actual reason of my search.
About the rice, in order to really enjoy any japanese food the rice is the #1 ingredient. Unfortunately it requires 3 things:
1) real first quality Japanese rice;
2) a good quality rice cooker (the chinese crap that costs 10$ is not gonna work the same way… buy a good one in china town, one of the electronic Japanese ones that keep you rice warm and ready for a couple of days… totally worth the price you pay, trust me and my wife on this one…
3) you need to wash the rice… else the rice will smell (like all the ones they sell at chinese restaurant… if you don’t believe me, go to a chinese take-out and get a package of rice… then go to a Japanese sushi place and get a rice bowl… try them both and compare smell, flavor, and texture… you will find that the Japanese has lost the smell, has less taste by itself and it’s much stickier (easier to deal with using chopsticks)… so follow the instructions at this page: http://www.issendai.com/lifeskills/Miso%20Soup/japanese-rice.shtml and you will be able to make authentic Japanese rice…


Francesco December 26, 2008 at 6:01 am

As a side note, a good rice cooker is the Sanyo ECJ-E35S 3.5-Cup Micro-Computerized Rice Cooker/Steamer. You can probably find it on Amazon or other small appliances stores.
Regarding the washing of the rice:
The reason for washing the rice is that it removes excessive starch clinging to the outside of the grain. The kind of rice the Japanese prefer is very sticky due to the high amount of starch, and if you cook it without washing before, you will notice that the rice close to the bottom of the rice cooker might be glued together to a clump. You can still eat it of course, but some people dislike these clumps. Also, if you cook your rice in a normal pot on top of your oven, a lot of excessive starch can result in a lot of foam being created during the cooking-process, making the pot boil over.
Looks like I found how to make salted salmon: http://justbento.com/handbook/johbisai/how-make-salted-salmon-shiozake


Sheryl Yu February 12, 2009 at 11:28 am

Very funny, inspiring and awesome blog you have here. The kind of funny, inspiring and awesome blog that makes me happy to have been laid off…otherwise I wouldn’t have stumbled upon it. Cheers! Good luck with your experiements!


MozartGirl1756 May 14, 2010 at 9:53 pm

I am actually known to make a Japanese breakfast every so often. My boyfriend LOVES miso soup, so he of course, loves it when he can have it for breakfast.
I must say, I love your humor. The bit about your husband eating the octopus ‘tea cup’ was hilarious that I actually LoLed.


Bad Home Cook May 25, 2010 at 10:30 pm

Thank you, Mozartgirl! You’ve made my week with that. Love making people laugh, because at the end of the day, if you can’t laugh then the terrorists have won.
…but he wasn’t ever my husband…just a willing guinea pig for a while…


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