A traditional Japanese meal tends to be much more complex than what you'll find on American tables. Why? And how can we use that wisdom of these traditions to improve our mealtimes?
You will find that soup is a staple at mealtime in Japan: from breakfast to dinner, fine dining to humble konbini shelves. There is a good reason that one of Japan's best known exports is noodle-soup!
味噌汁(Miso Shiru/Miso Soup)
Miso soup is served year round, and can be made from several varieties of Miso. Red, white, and mixed are the most common, but koji miso (with fermented rice and grains mixed in) and dashi miso (no need to make your own broth) are other offerings. It is commonly eaten at breakfast or as a palette cleanser during multi-course meals. There's tons of ways to prepare it: traditionally with cubed tofu and konbu, or a heartier version full of mini-clams!
Another classic, Tonjiru is at essence a laborer's meal. The simple broth (dashi, mostly) is made rich by the inclusion of starchy satoimo (taro), sweet carrots, and fatty pork belly or cheek meat. Burdock root adds some earthyness, as do the tofu and negi added just before serving. Before noodle soups took center stage as a complete meal in a bowl for Japanese workers, Tonjiru could be relied upon for comfort and sustained energy through the day. It's still served as a side or supplement during many hearty meals.
No kanji for this one - as it doesn't get more youshoku (western food) than this, really. I've seen recipes make use of bacon, broccoli, potato, cheese, kale, chicken, carrots, tomato slices, you name it. Basically it's usually a light cream soup (1 part cream/milk to 2 parts broth) when served as a side, with an assortment of vegetables and sometimes a little meat. Like Tonjiru, it's heartier than miso, but still light enough to be a delicious and filling side for dipping bread or other veggies in.
Soup, being mostly water, is not usually very calorie dense, and helps us feel full. Warm water (aka: soup, tea, etc) helps with digestion and can help reduce chances for inflammation in the gut by preventing temperature shock. It's easy to sneak healthy veggies into soups and they can be prepared in a matter of minutes to days ahead of time and keep well in the fridge or freezer.
For many diet plans, soups are considered a "green" or OK food, and they typically have many health boons, so take care to add a cup of soup to your meals!
It probably goes without saying that soy is included in just about every Japanese meal. Soy sauce, tofu, natto, edamame, even miso is a soy-product. Soy is a complete protein and easy to digest. It is of course, vegetarian and vegan friendly and versatile enough to include in every meal without feeling tired or overused. Even tofu comes in enough varieties that it can be easily blended into a smoothie or fried into delicious tofu nuggets.
The Japanese have known for centuries about the miracle food that is soy! It has the capability to take on so many flavours and textures that it can add variety to your meals without sacrificing nutrition. Protein is an essential nutrient that many of us don't get enough of- so why not try adding some soy to your meals? You may not even notice it's there!
Yep, we are going to talk about rotten stuff! Fermentation, the process by which milk becomes cheese and yogurt, fruit becomes wine and so on, is the same process that turns soy into miso, tofu and natto.
Japanese cuisine is full of fermented foods. In fact, tofu is written: 豆腐 using the characters 豆: bean and 腐: rot. Mmmm. Delicious.
Natto, usually eaten over rice at breakfast, is a super food that many people, sadly, find "super gross". Fresh natto, best eaten just after thawing, (as it is often sold frozen) is funky in scent and very slippery and stringy. Honestly, it's a bit difficult to eat and definitely an acquired taste. However! The protein in those little soy beans, compounded with the crazy benefits all those probiotics offer your gut, make adding natto to your daily life a worthy endeavor. I only manage to add it in once a week or so, but even doctors agree that the benefits of fermented foods like natto can improve circulation, digestive function, and even possibly add years to your life.
Sound too intimidating?
Try koji marinade or kimuchi. Koji, made of fermented grains, can be used as a meat tenderizer and adds complex umami flavour to proteins with an extra boost of good bacteria. Kimuchi, more commonly known as the Korean variety "kimchi" is a slightly spicy fermented vegetable dish made with cabbage, green onion, cucumber, or sometimes even carrot or bean sprout. It offers all the same good bacteria as more adventurous options, without the funky fermented taste.
Fermentation introduces good bacteria, aka probiotics, to your food. In some cases, as with sourdough, it helps break down proteins that are difficult to digest or adds other health benefits. Introducing fermented foods can help heal your gut and improve an assortment of bodily functions in a way that just taking a probiotic supplement may not. Plus, the fermentation process adds new levels of texture and flavour to foods- so go out and explore beyond yogurt!
4. Fruits 'n Veggies
Meat and potatoes are not on the menu in a Japanese household. Making carbonara? Yeah let's go ahead and toss some broccoli in there. Salad with breakfast? Absolutely.
I am often surprised to find vegetables snuck into unusual places in Japanese food. It's not at all uncommon to have a pasta dish with corn or peas added for...color? Flavour? Its a mystery.
Many of my favorite breakfast arrangements feature a simple, undressed salad beside the main courses and a piece or two of cut fruit. Even curry is liable to have a few chunks of apple hidden among the potato and carrot.
Several reasons actually. Japanese food is so often just either white (Rice. Cream. Bread.) or brown (soy sauce...on everything). Adding some uncooked produce not only adds much needed vitamins and minerals, but creates visual and textural variety. Even in small doses, getting those essential nutrients is important. If you aren't a fan of vegetables, it can be much more palatable to eat a quarter cup of arugala and a slice of carrot than a whole side salad, and you still get some of those vitamins.
Variety variety variety!
I have saved this for last as I feel it is the # 1 defining factor that sets apart a Japanese meal.
You can see it in kaiseki set meals, bento, new years osechi, even in school lunches.
Using small amounts of a variety of foods, with different colors, complimentary flavours, and assorted textures feeds the eyes as well as the stomach and makes for a more satisfying meal. Of course, different textures also lend themselves to different macro densities. Crisp greens nestled next to chewy meat and soft bread cover most of your basic food groups. Add to that the acidity of a few cherry tomatos, the richness of a cream soup full of chopped carrots and scented with fresh cracked pepper and....well you get the picture.
It's important to engage all your senses during a meal, so you can appreciate not only the food but also the moment. Acknowleging the fleeting warmth of freshly cooked food, the sensations of hunger just before you eat, even the comfort of the table's height or lighting in the room can change and add to your experience. This of course, is a part of Wabi Sabi, something you know we love here on the blog!
It is a well held notion that we eat first with our eyes, after all. Cognitively, as you pick up each piece of food with your chopsticks, your mind must take its time to recognize the changes. Eating a bite of crisp carrot, chewing fully, then moving on to a shred of salmon and some rice gives us a full spectrum of flavour and mouthfeel. Identifying each taste and food as unique helps us feel as if we've eaten more, and can encourage slower eating. Using chopsticks of course helps with this. Rather than eating all of each element independantly, try alternating bites of sides, mains, and sips of water or tea in your next meal. Combine bites of two different things and take note of how they pair. The more we use our brains while we eat, the more mindful we can be of our fullness and habits.
So, what were your takeaways?
I hope you'll try to incorporate some of these Nippon-rashii (typically Japanese) eating habits into your daily meals. I would love to hear how they have affected your eating experience and sense of wellness in the comments!
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