Why are They Turning Back to Traditional Japanese Food? -2
CHIBA – Tohoku University conducted an interesting experiment in 2016 that indicates a notable change in Japanese diet. Each of two groups of participants ate from different menus three times a day for about a month. The first group ate from a menu typically found today, and the second ate from a menu typical for around 1975. In the latter group, people showed lower levels of stress and BMI score. This means the menu from 1975 was effective in sustaining good health.*2 The menu from 1975, according to Tohoku University, consisted of “one soup with three side dishes”. It also used fermented condiments and a variety of ingredients. In most cases, the soup was miso soup.
If you ask Japanese people over 40 years old if they have a Japanese-style breakfast most of them would probably answer “No.” They would probably not have miso soup or rice. The few who do probably don’t have soup made from seaweed or dried bonito dashi broth. Instead, they in many cases would use powder dashi broth. Variety of food is increasing in the market. When you go to one of more than 50,000 convenience stores across Japan, one can find almost anything there, so traditional foods are on the decline. In this age of plenty, so many kinds of food are at hand. However, Yuko said, “Today, we say that home-made food is almost gone, and the taste of mother’s cooking has been replaced by the taste of something boiled in a bag.” Where did traditional Japanese cuisine go?
The healthiness of Japanese cuisine has been drawing attention for only 10-15 years in Japan. The Japanese learned how healthy our food is from the western people who appreciated Japanese low-fat food like sushi. You can call it a “reverse import”. For instance, public school lunches have offered bread and milk, instead of rice and miso soup, for over 40 years in Japan. In 1962, the per capita annual rice consumption was 118 kilograms. In 2005, the amount decreased to 61 kilograms, about half.*3 While rice consumption is dropping, bread and pasta consumption is rising, and Japanese cuisine is increasinglys popular in foreign countries.
Whilst pursuing a healthier lifestyle for today’s Japanese people, Yuko found a solution: traditional fermented ingredients. Out of her passion to help people become healthier, she has developed a lot of recipes using koji rice malt in easy-cooking and dietary education for children called shokuiku.
“In Japan, fermented food was used to bring our health to our dining tables. Our eating habit is a base for us to become healthier and enjoy a higher quality of life,” said Yuko. “Nowadays, our health is unbalanced. Japan’s medical costs are skyrocketing, and many patients depend heavily on medication. More and more people suffer from mental exhaustion. Food is the key to change this, and I believe traditional fermented food is our savior.”
With that said, making the same food that our grandmothers used to make is almost impossible today. Our environment and lifestyles have been significantly changed. Not every family makes its own miso at home and women no longer spend hours in the kitchen every day. That’s how Yuko came up with a creative menu that combines today’s popular cuisine and fermented food. “I ultimately want more people to eat traditional Japanese cuisine,” she said. “That’s why I produced soy sauce-based Italian food.”
Traditional Japanese fermented food ranges from condiments such as miso, soy sauce, mirin Japanese rice wine, and vinegar to food including natto fermented soybeans, tofu, Japanese pickles and dried bonito. The umami taste is increased in fermented food thanks to the ripening of the koji rice malt. Not only that, fermented food is believed to be effective for maintaining healthy blood pressure and helps regulate intestine functions. According to Hiroshima University’s research, miso has alleviated diabetes and adiposity. It also cleans the intestine, the research showed.*4 These results might indicate that the simple diet that the Japanese have ignored for decades may be the key to recovering the same good health that people used to enjoy a long time ago.
Even if the traditional fermented dishes have recipes that are nowadays impractical to make, the number of people eating fermented food will probably increase once they learn of the lifestyle benefits. Yuko’s recipes include “Gratin of Eggplant with White Miso” in which white miso is mixed in the sauce of gratin to make the taste richer, with the natural sweetness of the vegetable.
In another recipe, “Amazake Pancake”, pancake mix is blended with a sweet fermented rice drink. Amazake fermented drink has been extremely popular among Japanese consumers over the past couple of years due to its believed health effects. By using the drink, Yuko’s amazake vegetable dip with miso has become a popular selection from her menu. With variations of this sweet and salty combination, different vegetables can be employed according to taste. What Yuko is pursuing is easy cooking and eating at home, whether it be as a family or by oneself.
We are what we eat. It may not be easy to reclaim the healthiness that was lost as a result of Japan’s societal developments. But as the people of Japan being to realize that something is wrong with our modern diet, the increased attention to fermented food may provide one answer, with traditional washoku Japanese food providing another. The essence of traditional Japanese cuisine lies in its simplicity. Perhaps our revelations will travel beyond our borders and contribute to worldwide healthy eating habits. In today’s Japan, the services of specialist cooks of traditional fermented food like Yuko are only expected to increase.
Written by Motomi Takahashi
Credited Photo: Eri Minouchi
＊4 ：Data based on mouse experiments included in “Miso-ryoku” written by Hiromitsu Watanabe, Honorary Professer of Hiroshima Universtiy, Doctor of Science, Ph.D in Medicine, published in 2012, Kanki Publishing Inc. （「味噌力」広島大学名誉教授・理学博士・医学博士 渡邊敦光著（2012 年、かんき出版）マウス実験によるデータ）