The last week of September my wife and I made our way down to Los Angeles for Mutual Trading's Japanese Food and Restaurant Expo. LA is where sushi first entered the United States in the 1960s, and has one of the largest Japanese populations in the nation, so you can imagine my excitement to spend a week eating and exploring. I plan on doing another post highlighting on my experience at the expo, but in the meantime I wanted to do a quick write up about my favorite morning of the trip.
Our plane landed in LA early and we hit the ground running, taking a Lyft straight from the airport to a hole-in-the-wall spot called Fukagawa, in Gardena. I had done some research ahead of time and found out this was one of the best places in the city to get a traditional Japanese breakfast.
If you know me, you know I am a huge fan of anything breakfast and brunch. My grandfather owned a classic greasy spoon diner in a small mining town in the mountains of Colorado, where my father grew up cooking. For me breakfast has always been heavy, hearty, warm and filling. Biscuits and gravy, eggs Benedict, chicken fried steak, and cheese filled omelets have always been my favorites (also bacon, anything bacon). You can imagine how different it was experiencing a full traditional Japanese breakfast for the first time, a meal that puts great importance on being a well rounded, nutritious, simple and light start to the day.
Fukagawa is completely unassuming, tucked in the corner of a strip mall, if you blinked while driving by you would miss it. Upon entering we were the only non-Japanese patrons, always a good sign. The restaurant interior was all warm woods and deep red fabrics, it reminded me a great deal of the place I work. Japanese game shows were playing on a flat-screen and in one corner was a bookshelf full of manga.
We were greeted by a cheerful woman who brought us green tea and gave us a moment to check out the menus. Options were laid out as Combo A, Combo B, etc, depending on what protein and accoutrements we wanted. As with all meals in Japan, breakfast centers around rice, which is so important that a common shorthand for "meal," is "gohan," or "rice". Alongside rice there is always soup, and a handful of other small flavorful dishes that vary depending on personal preference. For me this meal was a showcase of the ability to bring out the flavor of ingredients with simple methods that hit all sides of the palate. There was an extraordinary and quiet elegance to the whole experience and I enjoyed every bite.
Here's a quick guide to the elements of a Japanese breakfast:
Gohan ご飯 (rice): As mentioned above rice is what the whole meal centers around, all other dishes are designed to compliment it. White or brown, it is usually served plain and warm but can also be made into a porridge or mixed with raw egg, ikura (salmon eggs) or even uni (sea urchin).
Misoshiro 味噌汁 (miso soup): Alongside rice, miso soup is served with almost all Japanese meals, and each restaurant or family has their own recipe. It all begins with a base of miso paste and dashi broth. Solid ingredients are added that reflect seasonality and provide contrast in flavor and texture. Some of the most common include tofu, negi (green onion), wakame seaweed, clams, mushrooms, and daikon. Aside from being delicious, I swear by miso soup as one of the best cure-alls I've ever found whether you have a hangover or the flu.
Yakizakana 焼き魚 (grilled fish): Being an island nation it is no wonder that a staple protein in Japan is fish. Shiozake 塩鮭 (salted salmon) in particular has over a millennia of culinary history in northern regions of Honshu, the country's largest island. Another popular choice is mackerel, which is what we got at Fukagawa, but most any fish can be utilized and is often determined by, you guessed it, season. One of the breakfast combos at Fukagawa offered grilled steak in lieu of fish.
Tsukemono 漬物 (pickled vegetables): Another cornerstone of Japanese cuisine, pickles provide the palate relief from umami rich foods. A variety of methods exist to produce the pickles, from simple vinegar and salt to more complex with mold and fermentation - resulting in dozens of varieties. A favorite of mine is, which is a regional specialty of Kyoto, is called shibazuke 柴漬け. This vibrant pickle consists of egglplant cucumber, and ginger, naturally colored by purple shiso, and pickled in umezu (Japanese plum vinegar). At Fukagawa they served Hakusai no Sokusekizuke, a basic salt pickle made with cabbage, carrots, and cucumber.
Natto 納豆 (fermented soybean): Now, I will be the first to admit that I don't particularly care for this stinky, slimy, sticky side dish, but the Japanese are crazy about it, as is my wife. It is usually mixed with karashi mustard, green onions, and a touch of soy sauce or ponzu. At Fukagawa it was served with a raw quail egg yolk.
Ajitsuke Nori 海苔 (dried and seasoned seaweed): Most people are familiar with nori, which is commonly used to wrap sushi. In more recent years it has been sold in small snack packs as a healthy alternative to potato chips. Due to its saltiness it is intended to be eaten with rice. I grew up eating hand roasted and seasoned nori made by my best friend's Korean grandmother, and have had a fondness for it ever since.
Hiyayakko 冷奴 (chilled tofu): Until I began working in Japanese restaurants I was definitely one of those people who thought tofu was flavorless. Agedashi, fried tofu in a warm ginger broth, was the first variation to change my mind but it may have a rival in Hiyayakko. Chilled silken tofu is topped with katsuobushi (bonito flakes), negi, and grated ginger, then drizzled with soy sauce or ponzu. At home you can get creative with other additions like corn, cucumber, kimchi, or shiso leaves.
Tamagoyaki 卵焼き (Japanese omelet): Another staple known to people due to its association with sushi, it is most commonly made by rolling several layers of thinly cooked egg. Sugar, soy sauce and sometimes sake or mirin are used in some recipes. Traditionally it was made by folding a single layer of egg many times in a special pan, and due the difficulty was seen as a test of a chef's skill. These days many restaurants purchase pre-made and packaged tamago, which I suspect was the case at Fukagawa.
The joy of any Japanese breakfast is the flexibility of all the small plates. Dependent on personal preference, seasonality, and even the selection of last night's leftovers, no two mornings need be exactly the same. Fukagawa gave me the best first experience for this type of meal I could have imagined. That morning in Los Angeles is perhaps as close to experiencing authentic Japan as I will get until I finally hop over the Pacific. While I will never lose my love of a big greasy spoon American breakfast, I now have a completely new perspective on my favorite meal of the day and look forward to switching things up some mornings at home and practicing salted salmon and pickles.