“Life is quite rich in the [Japanese] countryside. I used to hate it as a teenager. I always wanted to move to the city, but once I did, there were so many things I had grown up with that I could really appreciate,” says Meg Tanaka, who co-owns Melbourne cafe and concept store Cibi with her husband Zenta.
“Japanese people always talk about food… Well, my family does. They grow vegetables, they grow rice, they preserve. They go to the supermarket, but it’s quite far. When I was still there, there was a fish cart driving up to where my parents are in the mountains and a tofu truck selling soybean products,” she says.
She lived with her siblings, parents, grandparents and great-grandmother. Today, her parents’ families, including uncles and aunts, still live in the same area. Neighbours come in from the back door, bringing their surplus of daikon or eggplant.
“Her dad and grandma are always assessing how well the vegetables have grown. They have the same conversation every year: ‘this tastes good.’” says Zenta.
“A couple of houses down, the lady grows the most amazing vegetables. Their vegetables are never better than hers. Maybe it’s the soil? It’s becoming a bit of a competition,” says Meg, as she and Zenta laugh.
The origins of Cibi’s Japanese breakfast
Zenta is from Japan as well, but grew up in the country’s second-largest city, Yokohama. He met Meg in Adelaide when they were studying: she was focused on the wine business, and he was learning about architecture. They moved to Tokyo together before coming to Melbourne where they opened Cibi (Japanese for “little one”) in 2008. They have since moved to a larger space on the same street in Collingwood, opened a second Cibi in Tokyo and published a cookbook.
“We were always drawn to communal spaces where people enjoy themselves: cafes, restaurants, shops. That’s how Cibi came about,” says Zenta. “Where Meg comes from, you walk out and there’s food. We wanted that sense of sharing food with neighbours, with the community.”
Their Japanese breakfast has been on the weekend menu since day one. It includes rice, grilled salmon, tamagoyaki (rolled omelette), potato salad, seasonal vegetables and miso soup. You can also add nori, umeboshi (sour salted plum), natto (fermented soybeans) and pickled vegetables.
The dish is based on what Meg’s grandma used to cook for her every morning, using produce grown by the family. Just like her grandma, Meg packs her miso soup with vegetables like daikon, eggplant or snow pea, depending on the season.
It’s a well-balanced meal, nourishing and comforting.
“Cibi, for me is like my home, my kitchen, so I just cook what I want my family to eat. The Japanese breakfast is the most authentic dish I share with everyone,” says Meg. “My grandmother never travelled overseas. I don’t think she has travelled outside of her province, so I’m proud of sharing her recipes, outside of her world.”
While this breakfast is undeniably Japanese, Cibi’s identity is a bit more complex. “People call us a Japanese cafe here. But when we opened in Tokyo, they called us a Melbourne cafe or an Australian cafe,“ says Meg. “What I cook is based on what I grew up with, but also what I experienced later. Cibi’s food is quite unique; it’s my way of expressing food with a Japanese touch, but also based on Melbourne food culture and seasonal produce,” says Meg.
“My grandmother never travelled overseas. I don’t think she has travelled outside of her province, so I’m proud of sharing her recipes, outside of her world.”
The Japanese breakfast is just as popular now as it was when Cibi opened, and it has since led the way for other cafes to do their version. “We’ve been doing it for 13 years. Nobody was doing Japanese breakfast then, that’s why everyone came in,” says Zenta. And you can rest assured, it’s not leaving the menu anytime soon.
Grandma’s Japanese breakfast
To make Meg Tanaka's version of her family's Japanese breakfast, cook either the stir-fried eggplant and shishito pepper with sweet chilli miso or the ginger spinach aemono as the star item of your meal and present it with the other recipes below: the sake no shioyaki (grilled salmon fillet), tamagoyaki, rice, egg and potato salad and miso soup. Like at Cibi, you can also add extras – like nori (dried seaweed) sheets, umeboshi (sour plum), seasonal pickles and natto (fermented soybeans) – to your breakfast set.
Stir-fried eggplant and shishito pepper with sweet chilli miso
- 100 ml sweet chilli miso sauce
- 400 g eggplant, cut into 5 cm wedges
- 125 ml olive oil
- 100 g green capsicum, sliced into thin strips
- Toasted white sesame seeds to garnish, optional
Sweet chilli miso sauce
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp dried chilli flakes
- 150 g red miso
- 3 tbsp mirin
- 3 tbsp sugar
- 2 tbsp sake
1. To make the sweet chilli miso, heat the oil in a small frying pan over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the chilli flakes. Stir well for a couple of minutes to infuse the chilli, then turn off the heat. In a small bowl, combine all of the ingredients, mix well and set aside 100 ml and refrigerate the remaining amount for later use.
2. To make the stir-fried eggplant, soak the eggplant in salted water for 10-15 minutes. Drain well.
3. Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the eggplant, stir well and cook for about 5 minutes, until soft. Add the capsicum, stir well and fry for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the sweet chilli miso sauce, then turn off the heat.
4. Transfer everything to a serving plate and top with sesame seeds, if using.
Ginger spinach aemono
- 90 g sesame ginger
- 250 g English spinach
- Pinch of salt
- Toasted white sesame seeds, to garnish
- 50 g toasted white sesame seeds
- 2 cm piece of fresh ginger, grated
- 1 small handful of bonito flakes
- ½ tbsp mirin
- 30 ml tamari or soy sauce
1. To make the sesame ginger, add the sesame seeds to a small blender and blend until crushed. In a small bowl, combine with the remaining ingredients and mix well.
2. Bring a saucepan of water to the boil. Add the salt and blanch the spinach for 30 seconds. Drain it, squeezing out any excess water.
3. Grind the sesame seeds with a mortar and pestle or use a sesame grinder.
4. In a bowl, combine the spinach and sesame ginger and mix well. Top with sesame seeds.
Sake no shio yaki (grilled salmon fillet)
- 80 g salmon fillet per person
1. Season salmon with salt.
2. Place salmon under the grill at 180˚C for 5 minutes or until it's cooked through.
Make 2 rolls
- 6 eggs
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp mirin
- 1 tbsp olive oil
1. In a bowl, combine 4 eggs, half a teaspoon of salt, and half a tablespoon of sugar and mirin. Beat the eggs with either a fork or chopsticks. In a second bowl, repeat with the remaining eggs, salt, sugar and mirin.
2. Heat half a tablespoon of oil in a tamagoyaki or frying pan over medium heat. Once the pan is hot, pour one-third of one of the egg mixtures into the pan. If the pan is dry, add a little more oil.
3. Add another third of the egg mixture to the pan. Once its surface starts to cook, roll the first cooked egg portion over the new addition until you have a small egg roll. Repeat with the rest of the egg mixture, rolling the new additions over the growing egg roll.
4. Remove the egg roll from the pan and set it aside to cool. If you have a makisu (bamboo sheet for sushi rolls), roll it around the egg to help it keep its shape.
5. Add another half a tablespoon of oil to the pan and repeat the process with the other bowl of eggs, making a second tamagoyaki.
6. Once both tamagoyaki rolls have cooled, slice them each (crossways) into six pieces that are 2-3cm in thickness.
- 450 g white or brown medium-grain rice
1. Rinse the rice in cold water until the water runs clear.
2. Put the rice and 540 ml water in a saucepan and leave it to soak for at least 30 minutes.
3. Put the lid on the saucepan and bring the rice to the boil. Once it boils, turn the heat down to low and cook for a further 5 minutes, then turn off the heat and let the grains steam, covered, for at least 10-15mins.
Egg and potato salad
- 350-400 g potatoes, peeled and cubed
- ½ tsp salt
- 50 g broccoli, blanched and finely chopped
- 2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and finely chopped
- ½ tbsp finely chopped Italian parsley
- 50 g Japanese mayonnaise
1. In a large saucepan, combine the potatoes and salt. Cover with water and bring to the boil. Cook the potatoes until they are soft enough to mash.
2. Drain the potatoes, transfer them to a bowl and mash them well (there should be no lumps). Leave to cool. Season the mash with salt and pepper and mix well.
3. Add the broccoli, eggs, parsley and mayonnaise to the bowl with the potatoes and mix well. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt pepper and mayonnaise.
- 100 g onion, finely sliced
- 70 g carrot, cut into thin strips
- 150 g potato, peeled and cubed
- 80 g daikon, cut into thin strips
- 1 litre dashi
- 100 g silken tofu, cubed
- 60 g red miso
- 2 tbsp dried wakame seaweed, soaked and drained
- 2-3 tbsp finely chopped spring onion
1. In a medium pot, add the onion, carrot, potato and daikon and dashi. Cook over a medium heat for about 10 mins, until the vegetables become soft. Add the tofu.
2. Turn the heat off then add the miso using a misokoshi or a fine-mesh strainer to ensure the miso is blended evenly. Simmer the soup on a low heat, turning it off just before it starts to boil.
3. Add the wakame and spring onion to the soup.
Note: You can store the leftover sweet chilli miso sauce in a tightly sealed container in the fridge for up to three months. You can use it as a salad dressing, barbecue sauce or marinade for vegetables, fish or meat.