Today we’re going to be exploring a bit about Healthy Food From Japan! I’ve written similar posts about Italian and Indian cuisine so far, and this will be the third. Here I would like to discuss another increasingly popular cuisine gaining attention from health enthusiast.
Japanese food is becoming increasingly globalised, as is its fascinating culture as a whole! The country offers much to be enjoyed, such as anime, music, pop and traditional culture, and even the language (日本語)!
As an island chain highly influenced by Buddhism, Japan is by no means short of vegetarian and vegan dishes. That’s great news for those who don’t eat animal products, of course, but for those who do, Japan also offers meat dishes and plenty of seafood due to its close proximity to the sea.
Thought to have first been made during the Neolithic Jōmon era, the earliest food item on this list may be one of the earliest of Japan. Miso is a fermented soybean paste used to make miso soup. It most often can be found in three types: White, yellow, or red miso. The difference is mostly the type of grain that they are fermented with.
White Miso is made with a higher percentage of rice, yellow with barley, and red with a higher percentage of soybeans with different possible grains (but mostly barley). Other kinds of miso do exist including black miso.
An increasing amount of research1 is showing that fermented foods (even such as yoghurt!) are great for us and may even be essential for a healthy digestive system. This is because fermented foods are a source “probiotics” – beneficial bacteria cultures which live mostly in our intestines and help to digest food, absorb nutrients, improve mood, reduce cholesterol, improve oral health, and even regulate a range of bodily functions.
When cooking miso soup, don’t add the miso to boiling stock or water as this will kill the bacteria.
Miso is also a source of antioxidants, which fight free radicals. This prevents inflammation, oxidative stress, and even the development of cancer. These antioxidants paired with the probiotics found in miso provide a substantial boost to the immune system.
Note that miso has a high sodium content, so shouldn’t be consumed too often. Balance is essential to a healthy diet. Miso is beneficial, but not so much if we always eat it!
The impressive Shiitake mushrooms are often boasted to be a superfood. In fact, many mushrooms are extremely healthy and provide a wealth of benefits, as I covered in this post.
Shiitake mushrooms provide remarkable levels of antioxidants! These provide not only similar benefits to those of miso, but Ergothioneine – which is unique to mushrooms – is highly effective at preventing cell damage (and thus cancer and ageing) due to its ability to protect the mitochondria within our cells!
Other benefits of shiitake mushrooms include boosting energy by increasing its metabolism, reducing cholesterol, improving blood flow, dilating blood vessels (because of a unique component of shiitake mushrooms: eritadenine)
and providing beneficial fibres. The fibres found in mushrooms feed the beneficial bacteria in our guts, which means improved probiotic levels and digestion!
Other healthy Japanese mushrooms include Enoki and Maitake.
In Japanese, edible seaweed is known as Kaisou. It makes a great addition here as a Healthy Food From Japan!
Seaweed is an important part of Japanese cuisine, and there are many kinds used for many different recipes. For example, when making miso soup, dashi stock is used, which is made from Kombu, and when making sushi, Nori is used to roll the ingredients in.
Like mushrooms, seaweeds are a good source of probiotic boosting fibres and antioxidants which play an important part in maintaining health.
We also find an important nutrient in seaweed that many people are deficient in: Iodine. Seaweed is an excellent source of this essential mineral. The thyroid requires iodine to produce hormones that play important parts in managing weight, energy metabolism, brain health and development, and the function of muscles, the heart, and the digestive system.
Japanese seaweed types such as Wakame4 and Nori5 have also been shown to reduce unhealthy cholesterol levels, and Nori may even prevent the accumulation of too much fat in the liver (a condition known as fatty liver).
Seafood Sashimi 刺身
Sashimi is a type of dish that we don’t as often find in the Western world as we do in Japan. It is thin slices of very fresh raw fish or other seafood such as crustaceans. Sometimes it is made with meat, but here I will address seafood only.
Many people genuinely do prefer the taste and texture of raw fish over cooked. Other people may cringe at the thought (after all, we’ve always been told to cook meat and fish for safety. I’ll address that afterwards).
Onto the benefits: Raw fish often contains more Omega-3 fatty acids than cooked fish, and don’t contain the carcinogens produced through cooking (especially from high heat cooking methods such as frying). Omega-3s or something we can’t produce and need to get through our diet. They are beneficial for healthy heart function, reducing inflammation, and lowering the risk of cancer.
Common types of seafood sashimi are salmon, tuna, mackerel, sea bream, and squid.
All of these seafoods offer distinct benefits which are magnificent for health.
Salmon is an excellent source of Omega-3s, and is rich in protein, selenium, potassium, astaxanthin, and B vitamins! This means that it is great for reducing inflammation and preventing chronic illness. It is also beneficial for our immune system, nervous system and brain, and the health of our bones, eyes, kidney, and heart6. What’s more, astaxanthin may even be effective for increasing longevity as I discussed in my last post!
Tuna and mackerel both have fairly similar nutrition to salmon. Tuna is higher in protein and lower in Omega-3s, whilst mackerel is higher in Omega-3s but may be lower in nutrients such as Vitamin D and astaxanthin.
Sea bream is also a good source of B vitamins and selenium, and also phosphorus which is good for producing energy and maintaining chemical balance.
Squid (or calamari) provides quality protein (at about 15% in weight), B vitamins, antioxidants, and a host of minerals. These minerals include selenium, copper, zinc, iron, and phosphorus.
Eating raw seafood carries the risk of parasites: that is true.
It is no truer than the fact that there is risk involved in eating meat and raw vegetables in western countries such as the US. As long as the food you eat is properly sourced, prepared, and stored, it’s likely to be safe, right?
In Japan, there are very strict regulations on seafood safety. And, as a nation with thousands of years of experience, the fishermen of Japan are world-class experts in their trade. It is for this reason that many people across Japan can confidently consume raw fish. If you try sashimi outside of Japan, it is best to do so from a Japanese restaurant with a good reputation or using fish from a highly trusted fishmonger. This way, not only will you feel more comfortable with your first experience of it, but any risk should be lower.
(the same may go if trying tartare (raw beef) for example – as many people do – from a trusted French restaurant).
Other important precautions include:
- Using fish that has been previously frozen for at least 15 hours at -35°C (-31°F) or 7 days at -20°C (-4°F) – make sure your freezer can do this if you try it at home.
- Making sure the fish looks fresh and doesn’t smell off (i.e. too fishy or sour).
- Using clean hands and tools for preparation, and washing hands afterwards.
- Using fresh fish within no more than 2 days if not frozen, and consuming it within a couple of hours.
Japanese Pickles! つけもの
Tsukemono, or Japanese Pickles, are eaten year round in Japan and some are even important parts of traditional celebrations.
Japanese pickles are our final Healthy Food From Japan. They are made in multiple ways, but are all fermented. As we learned, this promote healthy bacteria that are essential to health.
Examples of japanese pickles include:
- Pickled plums (Umeboshi 梅干) are a folk remedy in Japan for colds and flues. They are salted pickles that are often sun-dried during the summer season. It is high in salt, so is most often eaten in small amounts as an accompaniment to other dishes. When made with young unripe plums it is called Koume 小梅.
- Sushi ginger (Gari がり) has a slightly sweet and refreshing taste. It is pickled in vinegar and is used to cleanse the palate after eating sushi.
- Red pickled ginger (Beni Shouga 紅生姜) is actually 10 slices of ginger speckled in the brine from the production of Umeboshi! It is often served with yaki-style dishes.
- Pickled daikon (Takuan 沢庵) is made from the root vegetable daikon, which is also known as mooli, Japanese radish, and Chinese radish.
Avoid These Less Healthy Foods
The worst dishes include tofu, tempura, tonkatsu, and other katsu-style dishes.
I know a lot of you are surprised to see tofu there, as in the mainstream health community it is considered to be very healthy. It contains a high amount of calcium, protein, vitamins and other minerals.
Because of this reason, traditional tofu is actually very good for us. But what I mean by traditional is not highly processed, and prepared by fermenting soybeans.
Most of the time, tofu made today is not made how it once was,
and the soybeans are not fermented before being made into the paste that becomes tofu. What this means is that tofu contains very high amounts of phytoestrogens. What these do is act as endocrine (hormone) disruptors, which can lead to detrimental changes in development behaviour, hormonal imbalances, and an increased risk for cancer and problems with the heart, reproductive organs, and immune and nervous systems. For this reason, it is best to avoid tofu unless you know it was prepared traditionally or you make it yourself traditionally.
Tempura – often made with vegetables or seafood – is battered and deep fried. We all know the deep fried food is bad for us anyway, so it should be common sense to avoid this one!
The crispy texture of deep fried food is caused by the oxidation and distortion of proteins and fats, which when we consume create chain reactions of free radicals within the body which can cause damage to our cells and potentially DNA.
Katsu-style dishes such as the popular chicken katsu curry are breaded and deep fried dishes. Another popular dish is tonkatsu. Tonkatsu is pork that has been breaded and then deep-fried. The reasons for avoiding these are pretty much the same as with tempura, and for those with a gluten or wheat intolerance / allergy these are obviously a poor choice due to the bread.
Another thing I would like to note is about mirin and soy sauce. These are common additions to Japanese cuisine, but oftentimes contain high amounts of sugar (and sodium for soy sauce). Because of this it is best to limit the intake of these and opt for lower sugar and lower sodium soy sauces (which do exist).
Anyway folks! That’s it for today, if you enjoyed learning about these healthy Japanese dishes (and some you should avoid), perhaps you enjoy my other posts about other countries.
Let me know what your favourite Japanese foods are, I personally love the seafood (including seaweed) and shiitake mushrooms! If you have any comments, suggestions, or questions I’d love to hear them in the comments below! 🙂
Until the next one, stay healthy
First Photo by Artur Rutkowski on Unsplash