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When I lived with a family in Yokohama back in 2009, we had fish for breakfast every day. While this is an odd concept for most Americans, and, I expect, most Westerners in general, it’s pretty normal in Japan. Being an island nation, fish is definitely a staple protein.
The fish we had was usually dried and salted aji (horse mackerel). For someone who was used to having eggs, bacon, and toast, or simply a bowl of cereal, salted fish was something I had to get used to. But I’m generally open to new food experiences, especially when I travel. I want to experience the culture as much as possible, and not hide behind the comforts of home.
I grew to enjoy the fish, and even welcomed the salty jumpstart to my day. It was an extra kick to get me through my Japanese studies. One day, I remember though, my surrogate Japanese mom said with an embarrassed tone, “This fish is much too salty. Try it!” I couldn’t help but laugh at her essentially saying it was not good, but urging that I have it anyway. And boy, it was like eating a chunk of pure salt. You could hardly taste the fish.
This particular serving was a special kind of dried fish preparation left over from the days before refrigeration. It was heavily salted in order to preserve it. I have to admit that I did not eat very much of the fish that morning.
The name for any kind of dried fish is himono, which essentially means “dried things,” but most often refers to fish. You can read some of the history of himono in this Japan Times article. It even has a recipe for making your own overnight himono, which is called ichiya-boshi.
In addition to the fish, we also had white rice and miso soup with every breakfast. There was a vegetable, usually okra, which was an even harder thing for me to get used to as it is quite slimy when prepared. I did not enjoy eating this, but I still did. By the end of my stay, it wasn’t so bad.
Another slimy thing we often had was natto, which is fermented soy beans. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I just couldn’t bring myself to eat this. Apparently it is very healthy, but not only is it slimy, it really stinks. I tried a bite of it once wrapped in rice like a sushi roll, and that was enough. The pungent flavor clung to my tongue like glue for a good hour. Now that a decade has gone by though, I have to say that I want to try it in earnest. I wonder if I could tolerate it now, and maybe even develop a taste for it.
There was also often a small omelet served with a line of ketchup on it, and sometimes sausage or bacon. And they made both green tea and coffee, so I’d have a cup of each.
To get a look at the variety of things people in Japan have for breakfast, Sora News 24 has a great article showing 20 different people’s morning meals. For this little cross section, most of the men tend to have a more traditional breakfast, whereas the women seem to have a more modern, light breakfast that a lot of us in the West could relate to. This fits well with my two main characters in my book Headless. Akio, the male protagonist, is all about the salted fish, natto, and green tea, while Masami, the female protagonist, pretty much lives on coffee.
One of my favorite things about our breakfast in Yokohama wasn’t the food at all. It was the fact that we all sat down together as a family to start our day. I don’t know how common that is in Japan, but it seems to be something usually missing here in the States, at least in my experience. Apart from the occasional brunch date with my wife, or when visiting family for holidays, it pretty much never happens. Often I’m eating while I start work, or grabbing something for quick sustenance as I head out the door. A nice, relaxed breakfast with family feels like a better way to start the day. Then again, I guess that depends on what your family is like! Perhaps it would add unnecessary stress for some.
What do you usually have for breakfast? And is it a family affair? I’d love to hear from you in the comments, especially if you are from Japan!