Japan has the highest rate of centenarians while consistently ranking as one of the healthiest nations in the world. And while many things contribute to this, diet is one of the most important factors.
One reason the traditional Japanese diet is thought to be so healthy is because it includes many highly nutritious, seasonal ingredients, beneficial for anyone looking to eat more healthfully and mindfully. It focuses on plant-based ingredients and less on high-fat foods and meat-centric dishes. Additionally, the traditional palette makes use of moreumami rich seasonings, like soy sauce andmiso, and uses preparations that focus on the natural flavors of ingredients and less on added sugars, fats, and sodium.
Traditional Healthy Japanese Ingredients
Available in a variety of forms, from thin noodles to oblong slabs,konnyaku is a jelly made from a taro-like root known as konjac. It consists mostly of water, with only trace amounts of starch and protein, and therefore contains almost no calories at all. But that isn’t the only thing that makes it so healthy. The addition of ash from green oak wood to the konjac makeskonnyaku a surprisingly high fiber food, one of the reasons it is also known asinohōki in Japanese (broom of the stomach).
Long known for its many health benefits, tofu is a staple ingredient in traditional Japanese cuisine. It is used in place of meat in some dishes and is the star of the show in other simple preparations likehiyayakko, a cold tofu dish drizzled with soy sauce and topped with green onions andkatsuobushi, dried bonito flakes. Another more recent invention is something akin to riced tofu, where a dried, crumbled block of tofu is used in place of rice (for those trying to be mindful of excess carbs).
In the tofu-making process, little goes to waste.Okara,also known as soy pulp, is what’s leftover from straining soymilk. It is high in protein and calcium and has a crumbly texture that works well in any number of dishes, likeunohana, a classic simmered dish made fromokara, vegetables,shiitake mushrooms, andhijiki seaweed. Another way to useokarais in cookies and homemade protein bars, a high fiber and more filling alternative to flour.
Lean and full of protein,sashimi (raw fish) is delicious on its own or as a topping for salads or homemade poke bowls. It requires little additional seasoning, making it easier to keep away from unnecessary added ingredients.
Katsuo no namaribushi
Another way to get in some healthy protein is withkatsuo no namaribushi, or boiled and half-dried bonito tuna. It is similar to a canned tuna, but because you can prepare it at home, you can control how much salt goes into it. Moist and flaky, it is perfect for salads, rice bowls and sandwiches.
Possible one of Japan’s most infamous foods,natto is a fermented soybean dish with a reputation for its pungent smell and texture. If you can get passed that, however,nattōis full of probiotics, protein, and a heart-healthy enzyme called nattokinase. While some like it best by itself, mixed with some spicy mustard and soy sauce, it can make for a great topping over rice, cold noodles, or even a salad.
Mushrooms, known askinoko, are a staple ingredient in traditional Japanese cuisine. They are full ofumami, protein, and their meaty texture makes them a perfect alternative to meat. Popular Japanese mushrooms includeshiitake, maitake, eringi, enoki, matsutake, nameko,andshimeji, though the list goes on. Learn more about the wide variety of Japanese mushrooms HERE. Depending on the variety, they make great additions to soups, stews, simmered dishes, skewers, and can even be added to the pot when you cook rice.
A popular snack food,oshaburi kombu are thin slivers of seasonedkombu seaweed that are quite tough and chewy, hence the nameoshaburi(meaning pacifier). They tend to be salty and packed with naturalumami from the kelp, making for a tasty, healthier snack.
Not Only What We Eat, But How We Eat
In recent years Western-style food and fast-food chains have become more prevalent throughout Japan, which has started to change the average Japanese diet. So, looking back to more traditional foods is key. But food alone isn’t what sets the traditional Japanese diet apart. Possibly more important than the food itself is the mindset towards food in Japan.
That mindset can be seen in one of the classic Japanese meal arrangementsichijū sansai, or one soup and three dishes. A typical set like this consists of a bowl of rice, a side of pickles, one soup, and three side dishes (though there can be more). These meals focus on smaller portions that are spread across a variety of dishes, which makes them geared towards slower, more mindful eating.
Additionally, there is a classic Okinawan phrase,hara hachi bu, which essentially means to only eat until your stomach feels 80% full and then stop. This gives your stomach time to start digesting and tell you how full you actually are. Just one thing to keep in mind next time you give some of these foods a try.
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@waruishouten) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food!