As we get older, we become more conscious of what we eat. I interpreted a healthy diet as strictly eating veggies and fruits and cutting off carbs which obviously is not balanced, healthy, or flavorful. It left the taste buds, unsatisfied, and the stomach, hungry. A year ago, I got the opportunity to move to Japan and be an assistant language teacher for the JET Program. There,I learned that eating healthy could be flavorful and filling. It just takes some preparation and care to balance taste profiles and food textures.
When I moved to Japan, my knowledge of the cuisine was limited to sushi, sashimi, ramen, udon, and matcha because those are the most popular and prevalent Japanese foods in the Western world. I was fortunate to have a Japanese coworker, Yamasaki-sensei, treat me to dinner where she gave me a lesson on how meals are plated and combined to create a balanced meal. She ordered a set meal which is pictured below:
She explained that a balanced meal has different textures. The meal must have something hot, cold, crunchy, soft, and chewy. For our meal, we had the cold udon, warm rice, crunchy pickled vegetables, soft and sweet egg, and chewy and succulent shrimp and pork chashu.
Yamasaki-sensei further explained that a balanced meal should satisfy the five basic tastes which are sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness, and umami. The pickled veggies give sourness. The saltiness comes from the udon’s seaweed flakes and soy sauce. The small slice of a matcha cake roll adds the sweetness. The pork and shrimp provide the umami of the meal. Finally, we could add some bitterness with matcha salt which is in the small circular plate in the picture.
My coworker clarified that not all the tastes and textures have to present in the meal as long as there is a mix. It is important that there is a variety of tastes and textures to make sure the meal does not become bland or boring. In Japan, eating is an experience and an art form even in the most simple dishes like ramen. Every bite is something new. A little bit of the umami from the broth mixed with the chewy noodles and crunchy mushrooms make for different bites each time one eats. Ramen, not particularly healthy, still fulfills this balance of tastes and textures.
When you prepare your next meal, think of what new tastes and textures you can add. You can swap the mashed potatoes from your roast beef dinner with roasted eggplants, peppers, and green beans. Swap the chips for a mini salad to go with your turkey club sandwich. Minor adjustments and a few minutes more of preparation will make a more satisfying and balanced meal.
About the author: Hello everyone! My name is Ruby, and I am a native Chicagoan who has just returned from a year in Japan. I fell in love with the Japanese food culture when I began exploring the Kansai region during my time as an assistant language teacher for the JET Program. I’m proud to be a blogger for Kokoro Care Packages where I can share some tidbits about Japanese culture, food, and travel. I hope your care packages and reading the blog posts will inspire you to visit Japan one day.