Eating Like a Japanese Person Can Lead to a Long, Delicious Life

Personal Health

Grains, mostly in the form of rice and noodles. Vegetables. More fish than meat. Soybeans in myriad forms. Not much fat. That’s the basis of the traditional Japanese diet in a nutshell, and guess what?

“Life expectancy of the Japanese population has steadily increased over the past few decades and is currently among the longest in the world, with Japanese women recording the longest life expectancy of 87 in 2012,” according to a team of researchers led by Kayo Kurotani of the National Centre for Global Health and Medicine in Tokyo.

For their study, published in the medical journal BMJ on March 22, the researchers tracked the dietary habits of almost 80,000 people ages 45 to 75 for around 15 years. None had a history of health problems such as heart disease, stroke, or cancer, and those who hewed more closely to the “Japanese food guide spinning top,” first published by the Japanese government in 2005, had a lower mortality rate by 15 percent compared with those who didn’t.

The food guide, which takes the shape of a well-known Japanese toy, is essentially an inverted pyramid with grains in the largest band at the top, followed by vegetables, meat and fish (as well as egg and soy), and then milk and fruit. Physical activity, water, green tea—even alcohol and sweets—are part of the mix.

In contrast to the many restricted regimens so prevalent in the United States—or the obsession with one or another “superfood” or specific nutrient—the Japanese diet dazzles with its diversity.

The recorded vegetable intake of the participants sounds especially mouthwatering: “carrots, spinach, pumpkins, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, Chinese radishes, salted pickles of Chinese radishes, salted pickles of green leafy vegetables, pickled plums, pickled Chinese cabbage, pickled cucumbers, pickled eggplant, sweet pepper, tomatoes, Chinese chives, garland chrysanthemums, komatsuna, broccoli, onions, cucumbers, bean sprouts, snap beans, lettuce, pak choy, leaf mustard, bitter gourds, leaf beet, loofah, mugwort, sweet potato, potato, taro, shiitake mushroom, hackberry, wakame seaweed, dark edible seaweed, lavers, peanuts, and tomato juice.” (If you want to know more about Asian greens, which are very easy to work into your cooking rotation, here’s a cheat sheet.)

The fish, meat, and soy dishes included “steak, grilled and stewed beef, stir fried pork, deep fried pork, Western style stewed pork, Japanese style stewed pork, pork in soup, pork liver, ham, sausage or Wiener sausage, bacon and luncheon meats, chicken liver, grilled chicken, deep fried chicken, egg, salmon, skipjack/tuna, cod/flatfish, sea bream, horse mackerel/sardines, saury/mackerel, eel, squid, octopus, shrimp, clams, pond snails, salted fish, dried fish, dried whitebait, salted fish roe, canned tuna, fish paste products (chikuwa and kamaboko), tofu, boiled tofu, fluffy tofu, freeze dried tofu, deep fried tofu, fermented soybean (natto), and soymilk (tofu and soy products are included in this category because of their nutrient profile).”

The researchers concluded that “balanced consumption of energy, grains, vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, eggs, soy products, dairy products, confectionaries, and alcoholic beverages can contribute to longevity by decreasing the risk of death, predominantly from cardiovascular disease, in the Japanese population.”

Although we tend to think of Japanese ingredients as somewhat inaccessible, most of them are not, given ready access to a good supermarket, fish store, and farmers market. Take miso, for instance. This protein-rich paste made from fermented soybeans is one of the world’s great flavor bases. You’ll find a more in-depth discussion of miso (plus a few more recipes) in a column from last year, but I’m revisiting the ingredient because it is a stellar gateway Japanese ingredient: It’s widely available, not expensive, and a concentrated source of the savory flavor called umami, which makes all sorts of things (even brownies and cheesecake) taste not specifically Japanese or Asian but simply delicious. Below is a quick rundown of three basic types you’re likely to find when shopping. Look for organic (non-GMO) miso.

Creamy, mildly salty shiro (white) miso is a terrific starter miso. Work it, along with rice vinegar and safflower oil, into a salad dressing, or toss with hot cooked vegetables and, if desired, a little softened butter to round out the flavor. Because aka (red) miso is fermented longer, it’s more robust in flavor. Use it for a glaze on broiled eggplant or wild Pacific salmon, or in a marinade or compound butter for steak. Awase (mixed) miso is a best-of-both-worlds blend of shiro and aka. Use it as a glaze for roasted chicken wings or thighs—two parts miso to one part honey, then brush toward the end of cooking—or added to a buttery pasta sauce.

The following recipe is from a wonderful, very approachable Japanese cookbook calledJapanese Farm Food by Nancy Singleton Hachisu, an American who married a Japanese organic farmer in the northern Saitama Prefecture around 25 years ago. As someone who plants her own rice and makes tofu, vegetable pickles, and even udon noodles from homegrown wheat flour, she captures the soul of a simple, pristine way of eating in a way that should speak to us all.

Cooking notes: You’ll see rapeseed (canola) oil called for below and in other Japanese cookbooks as well. Before you get your knickers in a twist, you should know that this oil has been used for generations by Japanese farm families. Hachisu buys organic rapeseed oil from Australia as well as Japan. Her alternative is cold-pressed sesame oil (aka light sesame oil). It comes in an organic version too and is available at many supermarkets and health food stores. Lastly, when it comes to sake for cooking, Hachisu suggests Harushika, a good-quality brand with a friendly price point.

Stir-fried Snap Peas With Miso and Red Pepper

From Japanese Farm Food, by Nancy Singleton Hachisu

Serves 6

This recipe is highly adaptable. The key is to keep a simple ratio in mind—three parts oil to two parts miso and one part sake. I’ve had great success with blanched broccoli and the season’s first asparagus. Hachisu mentions that you can also substitute snow peas, haricot verts, or two-minutes-blanched green beans for the snap peas. “Whole okra is also nice, as are wedges of juicy new onions or summer green peppers. Cook just long enough so no longer raw, but leave slightly crunchy.”

1½ tablespoons best-quality miso

2¼ teaspoons sake (see above cooking note)

1½ pounds snap peas

2 tablespoons rapeseed or cold-pressed sesame oil (see above cooking note)

2 whole dried red chiles, torn in half

1 tablespoon slivers ginger

Muddle the miso with the sake in a small bowl. Top and string the snap peas by grasping the top and pulling down the straight side of the pea. Heat the oil with the dried red chiles in a large wok or skillet over medium heat until the peppers turn bright red. Throw in the ginger and snap peas. Toss gently for several minutes, until the peas’ color has brightened and they are no longer raw. Add the miso-sake mixture and smooth around the peas with the back of a wooden spoon to coat evenly. Serve immediately, as the peas will quickly lose their vibrant color. 

This article originally appeared on Reprinted with permission. 

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