Let me lay it on the line: I hate breakfast. Not the idea of it, I love the idea of breakfast: thick slabs of sizzling bacon, poached eggs with hollandaise sauce, toasted crumpets running with butter and honey, freshly blended smoothies… it’s just that by some quirk of metabolism I am unable to approach food early in the day with anything other than nausea. I suppose, given the high-stress go-getter lifestyle now fashionable, this is a perk of a kind, but it leaves me miserable. This isn’t to say I haven’t cooked some pretty amazing breakfasts – my poached eggs with blackened butter and wasabi caviar comes to mind – just that I haven’t cooked any before about 11am.
It came to me a while ago that perhaps I was just eating the wrong kind of breakfast. Breakfast, like time and space, is relative. Breakfast in Nigeria is corn porridge and ground bean paste wrapped in leaves and steamed. In Kerala it might be puttu (steamed powdered rice) with kadala (black curry) and bananas. In Malaysia it’s nasi lemak, an elaborate combination of coconut rice, dried anchovies, cucumber, peanuts, egg, and spicy sauce. In Nicaragua we ate gallo pinto (beans and rice) with hard cheese, sour cream, and tortillas. All of the above sound more palate tempting than pancakes and links to me.
Perhaps it’s been the notion of specific breakfast foods that has been putting me off. Why do I have to eat certain items at certain times of day? I don’t understand why chocolate cake is inappropriate for breakfast but fine after dinner, which is one of the few times I ever desire cornflakes. And so on.
And then I had it. I asked a Japanese friend of mine what a normal breakfast was at home. “Rice, miso, fish, pickles… pretty much the same thing as every other meal,” she replied. That sounded perfect to me, in particular the miso. Sweet, salty, spiky miso soup, easy to down and digest, the perfect appetite stimulant.
Excited by my idea, which I had late at night, I prepared my first bowl of breakfast miso without having had time to shop for any ingredients. The only things I had in my refrigerator which were at all appropriate were:
“Marukome Boy” brand miso paste, “Koji” style. Koji is a yeast mold which is added to ground soy beans to ferment them into miso.
Instant dashi. Dashi is the fundamental stock of Japan and the beginning for pretty much all meals. It is traditionally made by simmering kombu kelp and fresh shavings of dried skipjack tuna together. Interestingly, both kelp and tuna have very high levels of glutamic acid, of which msg is the salt, which provides the taste sensation of umami. And if you’re interested, “umami” was named by Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo University, who isolated glutamic acid from kelp. I don’t have a block of dried bonito, nor the expertise to use it, so I do what nearly all Japanese do and make my dashi with instant granules.
Some dried shiitake mushrooms
Some baby cut carrots
Togarashi pepper blend
I made the stock by adding half a teaspoon of instant dashi to 1 ½ cups water, about double the traditional serving (I am, after all, a big Westerner, and not accompanying this meal with rice). I tossed in the shiitake mushrooms and sliced carrots.
While the stock was heating, I put two tablespoons of miso paste in a bowl and added a few spoons of warm stock. I then whisked this with a fork until it was smooth, and ladled it back into the stock. This step is necessary or the miso will not hang properly in suspension in the soup (or so Shizuo Tsuji, author of Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, informs me).
Just before the boil, I poured the soup into a bowl and garnished it with a few shakes of togarashi. Miso is never brought to the boil, though interestingly the reasons for this differ. In Japan it is believed boiling changes the flavour of the miso, whereas in the
West we believe boiling destroys the biological activity of the yeasts.
I learned a few things immediately. Soaking for a few minutes in warming stock is not a long enough time to fully rehydrate a shiitake mushroom, nor fully cook a carrot. I had used perhaps a touch too much dashi, which is potent stuff, and perhaps even a touch too much miso. In other words, it was too salty. And I won’t say it was the most aesthetically pleasing soup to look at. But I did drink it down to the last drop, so I’m counting that as a pyrrhic victory.
With a little more time to prepare, this time I laid in a stock of tofu, green onions, wakame seaweed, and a different miso from my local co-op. This time I used red miso, akamiso, which someone once told me is eaten in winter. I had high hopes for this batch.
I followed the same procedure, though with less dashi: 1 ½ cups of water with ¼ tsp of instant dashi. I also used two slightly smaller tablespoons of miso. The red miso was thicker and chunkier and harder to whisk smooth. While I was doing that, I broke up a little seaweed and cut up some tofu and put it in the stock. Added the smooth miso and reheated, not quite to the boil. I garnished with a sliced green onion.
It did not quite resemble the beautiful little bowls of restaurant miso I had drunk, with their cubes of tofu clustered at the bottom like tiny jewels, and green threads of seaweed winding around, but it was closer (once the tofu had become waterlogged). There was also a faint tang of bitterness, which I think might have come from the tofu. Try as I might, I find it hard to like tofu. And I might have overdone it with the green onion, first thing in the morning. But I was getting closer. And I had eaten breakfast two days running, which is probably a record.
Success! Using white miso (shiromiso), wakame seaweed, the green part of a green onion, and a little dashi, I created a bowl of miso soup worthy of Koibito, the second-best sushi restaurant in Olympia. I didn’t take a picture of it, but it was light, tasty, free of bitterness and uncooked lumps, and just downright satisfying.
The secret was a long slow simmering of the stock with the seaweed in it. Unfortunately, long slow simmering is not very practical for breakfast, especially if you work for a living. I think what I will do in future is rise, put on 1 ½ cups of water with a quarter teaspoon of dashi and some broken up wakame, and then go shower. Hopefully by the time I get back the seaweed will be softened and ready and I can go through the process of mixing up the miso paste.
Since day 3’s miso was so good, I made it again, but this time I took a picture:
Having mastered the art of miso and successfully eaten breakfast four days running, I rewarded myself with a short break from my new routine and made udon noodles instead. I made a basic broth out of water, dashi, light soy sauce, mirin, and about half a teaspoon of sugar. I used packaged udon noodles from the supermarket, and garnished with a green onion. It was good, but would have made a better light lunch or snack. I miss my miso.
Called napa cabbage in the US and hakusai in Japan, Chinese cabbage is of a much more delicate flavor than a standard green cabbage. It is, in fact, creamy and sweet. This morning I sliced a few rounds off one and simmered it a long time in dashi, before adding the whisked up miso and a sprinkling of togarashi pepper mix. Very nice. Chinese cabbage is, incidentally, the basis for Korean kimchi.
As I post it is actually still day 6, but I have decided to truncate this experiment because it is pretty clear to me that it is a success, and I already know what I am going to make for breakfast tomorrow (miso). I am very pleased with this discovery. I think eating breakfast has boosted my metabolism so that I am now more hungry in general, which is a good thing when you are a beanpole like me. I’ve been more alert through the mornings and feeling more energetic. All praise miso, the wonder food!