Adopting the Japanese approach to breakfast 0

As I might have mentioned in a few previous posts, breakfast has always been my favorite meal of the day. Aside from an occasional Sunday brunch of homemade vegan banana-blueberry pancakes or a tempeh scramble, I usually go for the quick (less than 5 minutes to prepare), easy and nutrient-rich breakfast. After many a breakfast of muesli, almond milk and sliced banana while traveling in Australia and New Zealand for 10 weeks, I was ready for a change.

Thus our 5-week visit to Japan provided the perfect opportunity to think outside the box. Organic, low-sugar cereals and muesli are difficult to come by in Japan, but more importantly, we wanted to delve into the local cuisine.

So what does the typical Japanese breakfast look like?

During our first week in the Kyoto area, we had the opportunity to take cooking classes with Emi Hirayama and Taro Saeki. With my usual fondness for breakfast, I was curious to learn more about what locals usually eat to kick off their day. Both Emi and Taro mentioned right away that rice accounts for a large portion of the typical Japanese breakfast.

Who has time to make rice every morning? Well, it turns out that most people in Japan have a trusty, automated rice cooker. Even though rice cookers can range in price from the very basic (around $25 USD) to the high-end (around $900 USD), the majority has settings that allow you to schedule when you want the cooking to begin. The best part is that most rice cookers keep the rice piping hot for a few hours so that it’s always ready to eat.

Taro usually starts his day with a bowl of rice topped with a small portion of fermented vegetables or seaweed. His 5-year old daughter, Haru, is big fan of steamed rice with natto (fermented soy beans).

Even though Japan has its fair share of bakeries churning out sweet pastries, cafés serving traditional American or European breakfasts, and grocery stores selling sweet cereals and yogurt, the traditional Japanese breakfast tends to be savory.

Since we were on our own for breakfast most mornings, we decided to adopt the Japanese approach during our time in Japan. It seemed that the Japanese were on to something with their savory, vegetable-focused breakfasts. Instead of purchasing cereal and non-dairy milk, we started buying prepared vegetable salads at the grocery store every night for the next morning. Interestingly, most standard grocery stores across Japan offered a very similar set of vegetable salads in small serving sizes, all at a reasonable price.

These six Japanese salads were regulars in our breakfast rotation:

  • Gobo kinpira (burdock root) with carrot and konnayku
  • Roasted pumpkin, sometimes plain, sometimes with roasted onions and topped with slivered almonds
  • A mix of cooked vegetables (shiitake mushrooms, potato, pumpkin, broccoli, lotus root) and tofu
  • Hijiki (seaweed) salad usually with shredded carrots and soybeans
  • Horenso no goma-ae (cooked spinach salad tossed in crushed sesame seeds)
  • Asparagus, carrot and sweet potato tossed in a sesame dressing (shown below)

Japan Apr 27, 2014, 7-49 AM

Over time, this new routine of eating vegetables for breakfast became something that I started to look forward to with great excitement.

Not only did I enjoy the variety flavors and textures of the fresh vegetables and dressings each morning, but I also found that my energy level was more consistent throughout the morning. I began to notice that I could go all morning without a mid-morning snack. This was highly unusual for me! I’m usually ready for a little nibble by about 10:30am.

Japan Apr 12, 2014, 8-31 AM.CR2

After about 3 weeks of eating vegetables for breakfast, I also noticed that my sensitivity to sugar had increased significantly. As someone who has always had a sweet tooth, I was no longer reaching for the sweet Japanese snacks or desserts that I would normally gravitate towards. Also, when I would have a bite of a sweet adzuki bean roll or a sip of a soy matcha latté, I found that a small taste was more than enough. I never thought it was possible, but over the course of just a couple of weeks, it seemed that I had reset my sugar gauge.

So now what? We’re no longer in Japan and I realize that we may not be able to find these same delicious, well-seasoned and reasonably priced prepared vegetable salads at grocery stores in other parts of the world. While my brain and old habits might gravitate towards the easy bowl of muesli, almond milk and fresh fruit, moving forward, I hope that I can take a few extra minutes to think outside of the breakfast box.

What’s stopping us from eating typical savory lunch and dinner foods for breakfast? While traveling in Indonesia last week, I asked if our hotel restaurant could prepare steamed vegetables, mashed sweet potato and tempeh for breakfast (pictured below). Yes, of course, they said. It was delicious.


What about you? What is your go-to savory, plant-based breakfast?