One soup, three dishes: Start the day (and the new year) right with a traditional Japanese breakfast at Bangkok’s Okonomi

A traditional 'ichiju sansai' breakfast, which translated from Japanese means “one soup, three dishes.” – Pictures by CK Lim
A traditional 'ichiju sansai' breakfast, which translated from Japanese means “one soup, three dishes.” – Pictures by CK Lim

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BANGKOK, Jan 4 — We are but a few days into the new year yet, for some of us, it doesn’t feel as though the year has quite started yet.

Perhaps it’s the post countdown blues (or, more likely, a series of hangovers from a misspent — or well spent, depending on your point of view — New Year’s weekend). Perhaps we simply need the right fuel to shift our body and soul into top gear.

This is where a traditional ichiju sansai breakfast may provide some inspiration. Translated from Japanese, ichiju sansai means “one soup, three dishes” or a complete meal to break one’s fast and to start one’s day.

At Okonomi, a Japanese influenced restaurant and café located in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit 38 neighbourhood, ichiju sansai is their very philosophy – a nutritious way to start the day, every day, while showcasing the finer details and craft that go into each dish that make up the meal.

Here, the sum is the point of the parts.

Chef David del Pilar Potes assembling trays of 'ichiju sansai.'
Chef David del Pilar Potes assembling trays of 'ichiju sansai.'

Despite the name, Okonomi is actually a Thai transplant of the original Brooklyn-based eatery. The Bangkok outpost is headed by Chef David del Pilar Potes, whose résumé also includes professional photography, which might explain the artfulness of every dish down to plating and ingredient composition.

The star of each ichiju sansai set is typically the grilled fish, be it misozuke hamachi (miso-marinated amberjack), shiokoji sawara (Spanish mackerel cured with fermented rice) or konbujime madai (red seabream flavoured with kelp).

Accompaniments include tamagoyaki (rolled omelette); tsukemono (pickled vegetables); aemono or fresh seasonal vegetables, dressed in a light sauce; multi-grain rice; an onsen egg, slowly poached and dressed with sweet soy; and a bowl of miso soup.

What a sumptuous breakfast! What a simple yet comforting meal — and how satisfying too!

The 'ichiju sansai' accompaniments include multi-grain rice, onsen egg and miso soup (left). Snow Crab & Avocado Benedict (right).
The 'ichiju sansai' accompaniments include multi-grain rice, onsen egg and miso soup (left). Snow Crab & Avocado Benedict (right).

We’re not likely to go hungry for most of the day, yet we wouldn’t suffer from the retributions of gluttony either; this is just nice. We are sated, not stuffed.

It occurs to us that we can recreate our own ichiju sansai at home too. After all, an indispensable part of every Cantonese meal is a bowl of clear soup. Clear but full of flavour, such as double boiled pork rib soup with watercress. The very memory whets my appetite, deeply.

There will be rice or a proper Cantonese congee — smooth, with proper body; none of that watery gruel — and there will be steamed egg custard. Some coi pou (pickled diced radish) and stir fried choy sum in oyster sauce. A steamed fish, what my father considered the epitome of Cantonese cuisine and the test of any cook’s true mettle.

It could be yat tong, sam choi. One soup, three dishes.

Barista brewing pour over coffee at the slow bar.
Barista brewing pour over coffee at the slow bar.

Well, wasn’t this the way we used to eat, always and always until, as times passed, less and less so? Perhaps the true value in dining in different cities, savouring the flavours of other cuisines and cultures, is to remind ourselves of what we hold dear.

A call to come home. To return to how we used to eat, to how every member of our family used to meet at the dining table without fail, twice, thrice a day.

It’s a cycle, we tell ourselves. That is why we have reunion meals every Lunar New Year. When our family is complete once more, when we are whole.

Wholeness is what I think of when our impulsive order of Snow Crab & Avocado Benedict arrives. Rather than order another set of ichiju sansai, this more Western brunch staple offers us a different take on how to start our day.

Okonomi House drip coffee is made from a blend of Thai and Ethiopian beans (left). Freshly whisked Matcha Uji (right).
Okonomi House drip coffee is made from a blend of Thai and Ethiopian beans (left). Freshly whisked Matcha Uji (right).

The Japanese influence is still present, of course. The hollandaise is lightened with yuzu; instead of dry muffins, shokupan or Japanese milk bread is used; and to spice things up, shichi-mi togarashi is used, too.

All that is left to do is to pierce the poached eggs and allow the golden yolk to ooze out. It’s every café-hopping Instagrammer’s money shot: All that is gold must flow.

But life isn’t all golden. There’s no guarantee we will feel whole every day. That’s the nature of things.

No day is complete without a little taste of what is bitter, a little taste of something that would shock us back to our senses to reality. Whether that comes in the form of coffee or tea, the barista behind the slow bar has got us covered.

Perhaps a cup of Okonomi House drip coffee, made from a blend of Thai and Ethiopian beans. Or freshly whisked Matcha Uji, deep grassy green both in colour and aroma. You would expect nothing but bitterness here.

Sweet Soy Doughnut Twist (left). Sweet Potato Tart (right).
Sweet Soy Doughnut Twist (left). Sweet Potato Tart (right).

Take a few more sips. What tasted initially wholly acrid and robust now reveals layers of acidity and brightness. A more gentle flavour, perhaps even umami from the green tea. We learn that even in harsh times, we strengthen and thrive.

After that bout of bitterness (if indeed bitterness is the right term after those slow revelations), we need something sweet to end our meal and our day.

Instead of the conventional rings, Okonomi serves their doughnuts in braided form. These doughnut twists can be enjoyed with a variety of glazes, including sweet soy, black sesame, yuzu and hojicha. For something subtler and less cloying, a slice of sweet potato tart will do the trick.

As we say our goodbyes — one of the staff has such a cheerful smile, she’d brighten even the gloomiest of tempests and temperaments — and depart, we see the space with fresh eyes. Even outside, Okonomi appears to be a different place from the one we entered a couple of hours earlier.

The relaxing, minimalist exterior of Okonomi brings nature into the heart of Bangkok’s urban sprawl.
The relaxing, minimalist exterior of Okonomi brings nature into the heart of Bangkok’s urban sprawl.

The relaxing, minimalist exterior of the house brings Nature into the heart of Bangkok’s urban sprawl. As with the ichiju sansai breakfast (which we have already promised ourselves to replicate in our kitchen, after our own fashion and incorporating our favourite ingredients), such serenity can be found closer to home too.

We can bring joy and wellness with us every we go. As the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, peace is every step. Peace is every step we take and may our first steps this new year be blessed ones.

For more slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.

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