I had the incredible opportunity to spend 10 days in Japan this summer, in a town called Miharu. It is our sister city, and I went as part of a group of five adults on a mission to find ways to strengthen our sister city ties. But as a dietitian, I was also there for the food!
We arrived late at night, and the next morning my little research project started out with a bang: the women who were caretakers of the bed and breakfast where we spent that first night prepared a “traditional Japanese breakfast” for us.
I hope you would agree that it is gorgeous, but the greatest part for me was that other than the coffee, there wasn’t too much that was similar to an American breakfast. We did have tea, but it was green tea, and the flavor was not what you get in convenience store bottles of Americanized green tea. We also had eggs, but they were made with some sort of sweetener and/or cream so they tasted like tamago, or for those who have never had tamago at a sushi place, almost like a custard. There was also rice, a sticky, sushi-style rice, which is served (and should be eaten,) plain. Inside the covered black bowl was miso soup, a broth-based soup that had tofu, seaweed and snap peas. The blue dish had a soft block of tofu that has a small amount of a soy sauce, as they use soy sauce very sparingly, and do soak things in it, like most Americans do. The main plate consisted of the eggs, but also mouth-watering, marinated salmon, and a cabbage salad with garden-fresh tomatoes and snap peas. Since we were gearing up for a long day of meetings and sightseeing, we also had a “dessert,” of yogurt and fruit. As it turned out, this was the beginning of a very interesting lesson for me; each breakfast I had was more like this than the typical American breakfast of breads, cereals, greasy meats, and even fruit! I started to wonder if maybe they weren’t on to something…
I started to inspect the anatomy of a Japanese breakfast a little more closely.
- Carbs: yes, they had them, mainly in the form of rice because they rarely have bread. It got me thinking; if we have pancakes, waffles, or french toast, and ALSO have potatoes and maybe even toast, that’s a full plate of carbohydrates with little whole grain or perhaps even fiber. In Japan, the grains seem to be limited to a side dish. And yes, it was always white rice, not brown.
- Fats:This gets high marks over the American alternative. While there is fat in the salmon and the tofu, they are the “good fats.” From what I have heard, yogurt is popular in Japan, though I don’t know if ours was lowfat. (Full-fat yogurt can have a shocking amount of saturated fat.) The other advantage here is the amount of fat: no butter, no whipped cream (!) and no bacon or sausage dripping with fat.
- Protein: This seems to be the biggie! With eggs and tofu and salmon and yogurt, this is a power-packed breakfast, which was able to keep us full; I often wasn’t very hungry at lunchtime, even after hours of walking, talking and sightseeing!
- Fruit: (Note that these are in the carbs category.)This didn’t seem a big part of breakfast, and one of my host “mothers” actually went out to buy fruit after we were talking about how we eat fruit at breakfast! There were cherries in season, so we did have a token serving of those, but fruits were definitely taking a backseat to…
- Vegetables: This was my biggest surprise! There were fresh vegetables at each breakfast, usually in salad form. Think about when, or if, you have vegetables for breakfast; if you say, “maybe a few mixed in with my meats and cheeses in my omelet,” I think you have pretty much exhausted the American vegetable breakfast options!
This was all very interesting, but when I got back to US soil, what would happen? Would I go back to the low protein, high-sugar and high-fat breakfasts that are just assumed to be the only option? If I did, what was the point of my little research project, really? I wondered if I could adapt some of my breakfasts to mimic the breakfasts I had come to appreciate. I didn’t want to have a sugar rush, then crash with hunger and the jitters at 10:30, and now I knew I didn’t have to! I started looking for more protein and vegetables to have for breakfast. I found that it is actually pretty convenient, and, dare I say, liberating, to be able to have (what we consider to be) non-breakfast foods for breakfast! Using leftovers was the easiest way to go, and of my four examples, all are made from leftovers!
Leftover salmon and rice from the night before, plus a handful of cherry tomatoes from the garden. Healthy, and faster than a drive thru!
For the “food snobs,” Green beans from the farmers market, Israeli couscous and slivered almonds! Couscous takes the place of rice here, and almonds add some protein.
I tried this in honor of the cabbage salads we had in Japan. Shredded Swiss chard salad with vinaigrette and shredded cheese. I ate it as a side dish the night before, but added egg and more vegetables to fill it out so it could be my whole breakfast.
Do I still eat “regular” breakfasts? Yes. But, I have been able to explore other options, which has helped my in many ways: better protein options keep me full while staying low-fat. Vegetables have fiber, and are the pretty much the lowest-calorie foods you can find. Its a quick and easy way to re-purpose your leftovers, and makes for a quick, but hot, healthy and tasty, breakfast. So, go ahead and warm up that leftover thin-crust, veggie pizza for breakfast–what will you eat the next morning?