5 Japanese Culinary Secrets to Good Health
During this unprecedented global health crisis, there is no time like the present to fill your body with nutritious and delicious foods to keep you fit and healthy. Japan’s rich culinary heritage has much to offer on this front: the archipelago is home to one of the world’s longest life expectancies and its balanced diet is often considered a major factor in supporting long and healthy lives. Here are five Japanese foods to incorporate into your kitchen.
Although miso’s original place of birth is hotly debated across east Asia, most scholars agree that it has been created using the same process for over 1000 years. Miso is made via combining the fermentation agent koji with soybeans, rice or grains, depending on the region of Japan, allowing an incubation of two days, and then adding the mixture to cooked soybeans. When these ingredients are left to ferment together for weeks, months, or years, good bacteria create the unique taste and health properties of miso. Miso soup, a popular iteration of miso and almost synonymous with Japanese cuisine, itself emerged during the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) when miso soup making parties became a popular gathering among elites, whereby guests would bring different ingredients to add to the soup. With a mellow and umami flavor profile, miso offers many health benefits, such as aiding digestion, lowering blood pressure, and adding flavor and natural saltiness to otherwise lower caloric and fatty foods.
For nearly two centuries, artisans from Fukuyama, Kirishima in Kagoshima Prefecture have been producing black vinegar (kurozu) in an intensive three-year long process. Beginning in April and drawing on Japan's "national fungus", koji-kin, these masters in the art of fermentation brew black vinegar in massive fields containing repeating rows of sixty-centimeter tall black ceramic jars. Once completed, the resulting sweet and acidic black vinegar, now turned a coffee-like colour, gets consumed nationwide as an all-purpose health drink to aid a number of ailments ranging from high blood pressure and cholesterol to lethargy. While those baked for years in the Southern Kyushu sun hold a special place for their commitment to a centuries-old natural brewing process, there are now many producers of black vinegar for all to consume, such as the popular brand, Mizkan.
While the origins of the fermented soybean dish known as natto remains uncertain and even mythic-like, its benefits are far from unclear. Typically enjoyed by a large proportion of the Japanese population for breakfast, the famously stringy and sticky natto carries a wide variety of health benefits, including an abundance of vitamins B, C, and K, the latter of which aids in the reduction of blood clots. It is also rich in many minerals, such as iron, calcium, magnesium, and more. Japanese people often purchase natto in square-shaped styrofoam boxes containing packets of both sweet soy sauce and mustard, and although it can be consumed as is, many add natto to rice or eat it with raw eggs, sliced green onions, or seaweed. If you are traveling throughout Japan, particularly in the east, you may be able to consume its regional variants as well, such as Hokkaido’s version which adds sugar or Fukushima’s addition of Chinese cabbage.
Created by a Japanese doctor combatting food shortages during the Second World War, aojiru, or green juice directly translated, was originally made of the otherwise almost inedible stems of kale or young barley grass. While juicing has become popular in the last few decades in the West as a luxury health trend, in Japan, aojiru is readily available on supermarket and pharmacy shelves for all busy workers on the go looking to meet their nutritional requirements. Now made of powdered kale or young barley grass, aojiru can be drunk as is with water, with added milk or soy milk to mellow its bitterness, or added to cooking or baking to up the health factor of a recipe. For example, cafes focused on aojiru goods might offer an aojiru roll cake, which inserts a full day’s servings of leafy greens into your sweets! Aojiru has many health benefits to offer: it is full of antioxidants to combat free radicals, the chlorophyll helps your body produce more red blood cells which will give you more energy, it is high in fiber to keep you full for longer, it regulates your blood sugar levels, and above all, it is packed with vitamins and minerals. Japan’s green juice is certainly worth adding to your health food arsenal.
Green tea is known as one of the healthiest beverages in the world and for good reason: research shows that it is loaded with antioxidants, reduces your risk of developing breast, prostate and colon cancer, can help with weight loss, and reduces your chance of developing type 2 diabetes. It may even lengthen your life expectancy if you drink more than 5 cups a day! Japan is a top producer and consumer of green tea. Loose leaf green tea, called ryokucha in Japanese, comes in three varieties- gyokuro, sencha, and bancha. Matcha, often added to desserts, as well as the star of tea ceremonies, is powdered green tea. Other types of green tea from Japan which have a roasted element are hojicha - a roasted green tea, and genmaicha- green tea with roasted brown rice. When in Japan, green tea is easy to consume in restaurants where it often comes freely with water, from supermarkets and convenience stores, and definitely from any vending machine near you. Drinking Japan’s myriad types of green tea is an enjoyable and relaxing way to maintain a healthy lifestyle year-round.