After visiting Japan several times, me and my colleagues got to experience the traditional Japanese diet through friends we made and work colleagues. I miss the Japanese lifestyle (most parts) and make conscious effort to adopt the Japanese way of living mindfully and eating into my lifestyle. This year we’re off to Japan in March for Sakura (and business, of course) and I can’t wait. We’ll be visiting our amazing kitchen knives blacksmiths, we’ll be sourcing more kimono suppliers for our homeware and apparel products and we’ll be making a photo session in the beautiful Japanese scenery.
When it comes to food, the traditional Japanese diet isn’t that dissimilar to a traditional Chinese diet, with rice, cooked and pickled vegetables (we Poles have a lot in common with them!), fish and meat being staple choices. However, because Japan is actually a group of islands (all 6,582 of them to be precise), its residents consume a lot more fish compared to other Asian countries. They also eat raw fish in sushi and sashimi.
Alongside their diet, the Japanese are big fans of green tea and in particular matcha tea, which is fast gaining popularity in the UK. In Japan you are served great tea on each business meeting. In restaurants, however, you’re served soba-cha (buckwheat tea) or green tea. You’re probably familiar with another drink – matcha. This is a stone-ground powdered green tea, and it is most valued for its high antioxidant compounds known as catechins, which have been linked to fighting cancer, viruses and heart disease.
A recent study by the British Medical Journal found that those who were following the Japanese dietary guidelines – a diet high in grains and vegetables, with moderate amounts of animal products and soy, but minimal dairy and fruit – had a reduced risk of early death caused by heart disease or a stroke. Japanese diet is traditionally high in soy and fish high in Omega fats which play a significant role in this reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. The goodness of Japanese diet is also seen in waistline – their people have the lowest rates of obesity amongst men and women as well as long life expectancy.
It’s simply impossible to dislike Japanese cousine. If you’re not a fan of raw fish, there is a spectrum of other cooked food you’ve probably heard of or have eaten. While Shabu Shabu or Suki Yaki may sound exotic, you’ve probably heard of Chicken Katsu, Tempura, Udon or Ramen.
Japanese food has all the goodies for your health, so you don’t have to compromise your love for food and good taste to have a healthy lifestyle.
Let’s start with the most common dish type which is… soup.
1. The power of soup
In Japan, miso soup is served with most meals (yes, breakfast too) and is considered one of the key contributors to Japan’s healthy diet. Drinking miso soup will boost digestion after meals and help cleanse the body. It’s filling (no more snacking between meals, yupi) and low in calories (fat and carbohydrates) and high in protein. It is now part of our daily diet and while you can use traditional ingredients such as seaweed and tofu these can be easily replaced with vegetables sitting in your fridge such as leek, onion, carrot, spinach, cabbage etc.
2. Hara Hachi Bu, means eat until you are 80% full
There is a saying from Okinawa in Japan, that you should eat until you are 80% full. In Japanese this translates as ‘hara hachi bu’. The reasoning behind this is that it takes time for the brain to process that the stomach is full. Japanese eat slowly, celebrating each meal. Small portions of many pickled goodies help with pleasing all the senses, as the food there can be colourful, and is never dull. This is a mind-set and way of thinking so can be easily integrated into any person’s lifestyle.
3. Portion control
Continuing from the thing I wrote above, one of the things that really stood out to me and my colleagues during our time in Japan was the smaller portion sizes compared to here in the UK and other countries we’ve travelled. Even American fast-food chains in Japan served smaller portions than here in the UK. Rice is usually served from a small bowl, helping you to control the amount you eat.
4. Mottainai (no food waste culture)
This is an expression I often heard among my Japanese friends ‘mottainai’ which translates as better not to waste it. Very similar to the philosophy of danshidari, Japanese from a young age Japanese people are taught to appreciate food and not to waste it, both at home and at school.
There is a culture in Japan to re-use leftover food so leftovers from dinner will be used for the next day’s breakfast or lunch box. At many schools, the students and staff use to keep a log of food waste at lunchtime and analyse it so they can understand it and reduce it. Learning how to be creative with your leftovers to re-use them helps not only the environment but also your pocket.
Superfoods are marketed as miracle foods that can apparently make you live longer, and cure and prevent all kinds of diseases. But the science doesn’t really support the hype. However, the truth is that there are foods which are more or less nutritious and The Japanese diet is filled with such superfoods.
One of them is nori – the famous seaweed which The Japanese are using in cooking in a very creative ways. The easiest idea is to simply add it to a stew, salad or bread recipe if you want to include it in your diet.
Also, as mentioned before, green tea and its sister matcha are another powerful parts of the Japanese diet which has numerous health benefits and can be easily added to your daily diet, starting off with one cup a day and giving you boost of energy!
6. Rice vs. other carbohydrates
Rice is the sacred grain in Japan and Japanese people eat it with almost every meal. Many people have this misconception of the rice being high in carbohydrates, however, compared to potatoes or bread, it tends to be lower in calories (because you don’t need any toppings like butter for it). It is also more filling. You should also consider eating brown rice instead of white rice for even a healthier option.
7. Conscious choice for seasonal and local products
Japan is an island which means many of the products need to be imported and transported with different means, raising the costs of those products significantly. Japanese learned the importance of eating local and seasonal produce. There are four distinct seasons in Japan and the Japanese look forward to the seasonal produce that each season brings. Also, Japanese traditional cuisine called ‘washoku’ is based on the foundation of using seasonal and local produce. In Japan, there is a need of understanding where our food comes from and when it is in season for particular fruit or veggie.
Changing your diet to a more Japanese way of eating is going to have a positive impact on your health and you will see in no time that you feel more energetic and centred. By adding plenty of fish, rice (preferably brown rice), and vegetables to your diet, plus cutting back on red meats and processed foods, can all make a radical difference to your wellbeing. Now go and have that green tea!