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Saturday, Oct. 10, 2009

JAPAN LITE

Breakfast deja vu — have we met before?


Hot dogs for breakfast anyone? If you order a "Western breakfast" in Japan, you're likely to get breakfast that includes either hot dogs or salad. This is the image of what foreigners eat. No wonder the Japanese think we're strange.

But the longer I live here the more I understand where this concept of Western breakfast comes from.

Although the classic Japanese breakfast is miso soup with rice, this breakfast is seldom found in the Japanese home these days, possibly because it is far too healthy.

These days people are out to gain a bit of weight, perhaps a reaction to a financial downturn because it makes you feel like you're still doing OK. These days, most Japanese people opt for a breakfast of industrial size toast with butter or cheese, an egg or two and a glass of milk. And this is what they carry with them onto the trains in the mornings and which you will occasionally hear being digested through gurgles from neighboring train passengers.

If you looked into the stomachs of Westerners on the same train, however, you'd find a wide variety of food making its way through the intestines: cereal, fruit, bagels, English muffins, croissants, pancakes, bacon & eggs, etc. I doubt there would be a leaf of lettuce or a hot dog on a bun with mustard passing through.

But still, stereotypes remain. The other morning, I went to visit a foreign guest staying at one of the minshuku on the island. There was a large bowl of boiled cabbage in the middle of the breakfast table. There were sausages (the hot dog effect?) laying on the top of the cabbage with boiled onions in between. It was all arranged in an earthenware nabe pot. Even though the breakfast was just for one guest, there was enough food in the bowl to feed a family of five.

"What's that?" I asked Junko pointing to the cabbage concoction. "Breakfast," she said. "Japanese breakfast?" I presumed. "Western breakfast," she corrected me. "That's what I serve all the gaijin for breakfast," she added proudly while placing a lone empty omelet on a plate in front of the guest. The omelet looked like it had just crossed the finish line of a marathon and had expired right there.

But Junko is an excellent cook. Despite what the food looks like, it really is quite tasty. She uses her own homegrown herbs and is very creative with her mixtures. It's just not what you expect when you hear the term "Western breakfast."

Which is why I prefer to call her food "fusion." East meets west on the plate, the Japanese food identifiable by the soy sauce and blob of wasabi on the side and the Western food identifiable by its . . . uhhh, cowboy hat and holsters.

If you're invited to a Japanese person's home overnight, however, in addition to the toast and eggs, they'll often add a few more foods for breakfast. In this case, be prepared for breakfast deja vu.

Breakfast deja vu is when, at the breakfast table, you suddenly get this funny feeling you've eaten this meal before. "Haven't I seen that asparagus in that same blue patterned bowl before? And look at that fish! I can't remember the name but I never forget a face, especially not this one: mouth gaping, tongue hanging out, eyes glazed over. Aha! I have seen it before — last night on the dinner table. That was the fish I was avoiding. And that asparagus too."

Like all over Asia, the remains of last night's supper are just as eligible for breakfast the next morning. Which is why you may as well eat everything on your dinner plate so as not to be confronted with the same ornery fish or vegetable the next morning. There's no escaping some foods.

The other night I ate dinner with Junko. She had made spaghetti, which she is very proud of. So the next day when I dropped by her house, I wasn't surprised when she offered me the leftovers from the night before. "Take this for lunch," she said, shoving a bag into my hands.

When I got home I opened the bag — spaghetti sandwiches!

This is when it hit me. While foreigners may have a specific concept of what Western food is, the Japanese don't. To them, Western food is quite simply anything that isn't Japanese.



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