Starting The Day The Japanese Way

SUNDAY GOURMET

April 04, 1993|By GAIL FORMAN

Salty seaweed tea and dried fish for breakfast? They astonished me, too, when I had them during a stay in a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, several years ago. With them came miso soup and rice, breakfast mainstays; broiled fish; a room-temperature sunny-side-up egg; crunchy pickled vegetables; and rectangles of seasoned nori seaweed.

This breakfast included all the basic flavorings of Japanese cooking: soy sauce, sake (rice wine), sugar and --i (kelp and dried bonito soup stock). Pickled ginger, daikon (radish) and umeboshi plums are served to aid digestion.

On my first morning, I sat on a cushion on the floor to eat. To my delight, I found the meal (except the egg) delicious.

Back home, I turned my Japanese breakfast into a brunch for friends. They enjoyed it, and if you're open to new tastes, you will, too.

Ingredients are readily available in Asian grocery stores. Use only a Japanese soy sauce such as Kikkoman or San-J brewed tamari. Seasoned nori strips are sold ready to eat.

Miso is a must. It's the "chicken soup" of Japan, and every cook has her own version. Though there are several serviceable miso mixes on the market, the soup is quick and easy to make from scratch. The dish starts with --i. It is not hard to prepare, but these days even in Japan most cooks buy the instant packages. Chicken broth is a good substitute.

When I serve Japanese breakfast, I must admit, I take some liberty with tradition: I replace the fried egg with chawan-mushi, an egg custard. A sushi-bar specialty, it's easy to make at home.

With rice and a fresh fruit salad (strawberries, raspberries, grapes, kiwi, papaya and mango spiked with honey, lime juice, cinnamon, crystallized ginger and coriander leaves), this meal is an exquisite, Japanese-inspired beginning to the day.

Since Japanese meals are designed not only to be nutritious and filling but also for flavor and eye appeal, I use inexpensive rattan trays, basic blue and white rice bowls, covered lacquer soup bowls and bamboo chopsticks for a lovely presentation.

MISO SOUP

4 dried black shiitake mushrooms

4 cups --i stock or chicken broth

1 teaspoon soy sauce

4 tablespoons red miso paste, or more to taste

1/2 cake soft bean curd, cut in small cubes

1 scallion, finely chopped

Soak mushrooms 15 minutes in boiling water. Discard stems and slice caps. Heat stock and add soy sauce. In a small bowl, beat together 4 tablespoons of stock and miso paste. Slowly stir mixture into simmering stock. Add mushrooms and bean curd and simmer 4 minutes. Do not boil. Garnish with scallion. Serves 2-4.

CHAWAN-MUSHI

(SAVORY EGG CUSTARD)

4 small, dried shiitake mushrooms

4 small shrimp, shelled

1 tablespoon Japanese soy sauce

1 teaspoon sake

2 1/2 cups --i stock or chicken broth

salt to taste

4 eggs, beaten

2 ounces chicken breast meat, sliced paper- thin

8 canned ginkgo nuts, rinsed and drained, optional

small bunch lettuce, spinach or watercress, chopped

4 slices lemon rind

Soak mushrooms 15 minutes in boiling water. Discard stems but leave caps whole. Sprinkle shrimp with 1/2 of the soy sauce. Stir remaining soy sauce, sake, stock and salt into eggs. Divide mushrooms, chicken, shrimp and ginkgo nuts among 4 heat-proof, 1-cup bowls. Ladle in egg mixture. Add greens. Cover bowls with aluminum foil and set in a pot of boiling water. Cover pot and simmer until mixture is set, 15-20 minutes. Or place bowls in a deep roasting pan half-filled with boiling water and bake in a 425-degree oven until set, about 1/2 hour. Remove bowls from water and place on plates. Uncover and garnish with lemon rind. Serve hot or cold. Serves 4.

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