Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have had a mother who cooked fresh food for each and every meal, every day. I remember, as a child, I would wake up and go downstairs to the familiar sound of grating in the kitchen. This was my mother, shaving a solid piece of dried and smoked bonito fish to make the flakes for dashi stock. Each day she would shave the fish to obtain the freshest bonito flakes that were then made into dashi stock for miso soup, which was served at breakfast.
The Japanese diet
As a health-conscious chef, I have long been aware of the specific health benefits of the Japanese diet. Japan boasts one of the highest life expectancies in the world, and only 3.6 per cent of the Japanese population have a body mass index over 30, which is the international standard for obesity. The reasons for this are undoubtedly the diet, with many Japanese people subscribing to the notion ‘eat with your eyes’ – a nod to the importance of colours, crockery and food presentation.
Typically, Japanese meals consist of an array of textures and flavours, which are eaten slowly and, in comparison to the western diet, contain fewer fats or processed ingredients, and far less dairy and meat. Versatile ingredients such as miso and two of my personal favourites – seaweed and tofu – contain an array of vitamins and minerals that promote excellent health, and most importantly lead to mouthwateringly good food.
The Japanese table is considered a work of art, with presentation an extremely important part of the dining experience. This, along with the well-known saying ‘eat only until you’re 80 per cent full’ and the specific set of ingredients we use, have led to Japan having the lowest obesity rate in the developing world.
In comparison to many western diets, the Japanese diet is low in fat – animal fats and dairy in particular – with milk often supplemented with a soy alternative and meat replaced by soya products such as tofu. Tofu is an incredibly versatile ingredient that is so often misused, however it is incredibly high in protein, easy to transform into a delicious dish and contains less fat and fewer calories than the same quantity of meat. The Japanese diet takes the rest of its protein mainly from seeds and fish, the latter of which also contains good fats and minerals.
Although the Japanese diet is low in fat, unlike most modern ‘diets’ it is not low in starchy carbohydrates, with rice a staple and often eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner. In fact about half of what a Japanese person eats a day consists of carbohydrates. As many nutritionists now explain, carbohydrates are not the cause of weight gain, rather sugar, refined foods and simply over-eating – which is quite difficult to do when one is eating such a range of flavours and textures (especially with chopsticks!).
Most Asian diets contain starchy carbohydrates, and eating a healthy amount of rice and noodles at mealtimes allows the body to absorb all of the rich vitamins and minerals, and maintain blood sugar levels, therefore limiting snacking.
Japan has one of the highest life expectancies in the world. There are two reasons for this – one is the advanced medical treatment we receive and the other is undoubtedly the diet. Most Japanese people tend to eat less meat and dairy products compared to a western diet and take their protein mostly from fish, soya beans and seeds.
Japanese people consume more fish than any other nation and catch the most variety of fish in the world. As a result, oily fish is eaten daily by most Japanese people which in turn means that very few elderly Japanese people suffer from joint problems. Regular consumption of fish also reduces the likelihood of heart disease and helps preserve grey-matter neurons in the brain, reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive decline and dementia.
Another ingredient that sets the Japanese food apart from other cuisines is seaweed, and I often say that my own consumption of seaweed, filled with calcium, is the reason that my hair and nails are so strong and shiny. Sea vegetables, such as seaweed, are known to prevent high blood pressure and have detoxifying benefits. Seaweed is an extraordinary source of a nutrient missing in almost every other food: iodine, which is needed for a healthy thyroid.
The longevity-promoting effects of a diet including sea vegetables and fish have been heavily researched, mainly through a 25-year study of the Okinawans, the longest-living population in the world. At the southern-most tip of Japan, the Okinawans eat more sea vegetables and soya products than anyone else in the world. As a whole, the Okinawans have a life expectancy of 110 years.
Focus on balance
The Japanese attitude to eating focuses upon balance and enjoying the powerful flavours of the traditional Japanese palate and this is what I like to encourage: enjoyment of food and enjoyment of a healthy, active and long life. My recipes begin with fresh, nutritious ingredients, remain authentic and draw on generations of experience.
This is an edited extract from Cook Japan: Stay Slim Live Longer by Reiko Hashimoto (Bloomsbury, hb, $35).
Discover more about the health benefits of the Japanese way of eating in My Japanese Diet, 8.30pm Thursday April 6 on SBS, then on SBS On Demand.
Cook the book
A very virtuous bowl, this is a dish for true tofu lovers. It’s worth obtaining high-quality tofu as it really makes a difference.
Tonkatsu is a well-known and popular dish among Japanese and Western people. However, it is quite rich and at its heart is just deep-fried crumbed pork. As much as I love tonkatsu, I hesitate… So I have created this chicken and vegetable katsu, a much lighter version.
Here is another traditional Japanese-Western dish. Meatballs may not sound Japanese but it’s all about the sauce. Try these for a different angle on meatballs.
Dorayaki makes a tasty teatime cake rather than after-dinner dessert. However, simply adding matcha to the cake batter – and serving with cream – gives you a smarter-looking dish more appropriate to a dessert course. You can make your own adzuki paste, or use bought red bean paste, or use fresh fruit instead.
If there is a single dish from this book that makes the most regular appearance on our dining table, it’s this one. We will often cook a bunch of spinach early in the week and just leave it in the fridge. We have boosted soy sauce always to hand and the bonito flakes live in the pantry. From that starting point, if we need an extra dish for the table, this can be ready in less than a minute.
Filled with shredded vegetables, minced lean chicken and protein-packed eggs, this version of a Japanese pancake makes a nutritious and filling lunch or light dinner. In Japan it’s traditionally served with mayonnaise, but I prefer to skip this in favour of a little sweet soy sauce and some salad leaves.