Japan Series: The Traditional Japanese Diet

I have some very exciting news to share.

I’m going to Japan!

If you read my previous blog post, you’ll know that I recently celebrated my 30th birthday. It was a wonderful day filled with delicious food and almost all of my favourite people – my parents travelled all the way from New Zealand to celebrate with me, which made the day even more memorable.

As an extra-special surprise, Elliott revealed that he is taking me to Japan in November!

We will be travelling around the country for three weeks, visiting key locations at their autumnal peaks. Can you think of a more perfect trip?

Needless to say, I’m extremely excited.

So far I’ve been channeling all of my energy into pre-holiday shopping, but my bank account is starting to hate me. Instead, I decided to start a new series focused entirely on Japan so that I can utilise my obsession in a more productive way.

Of course, I’ve chosen to start with food. More specifically, the Japanese diet.

I wrote a blog post a couple of years ago detailing how to stay vegan and healthy while travelling around Japan.

I’m still proud of that post, but it definitely needed an update. My diet has changed so much since then (if you haven’t been keeping up, I’m no longer vegan!) and I’ve also learned a lot more about the Japanese diet.

However, I’m no expert. I’ll be writing from my own experiences and observations which most likely aren’t going to reflect the diet of every Japanese citizen. But after four trips to this wonderful country, I think I’ve picked up a fair bit of information.

In this post I’ll be focusing on a more traditional Japanese diet which revolves around rice, fish, noodles, vegetables and fermented foods such as miso and natto.

The Japanese eat far less red meat than us Westerners, preferring alternate protein sources such as fish and tofu. I’ve noticed that pork (and often beef) does feature in many of their signature dishes, but a surprising amount of their traditional diet is primarily plant and fish-based.

Kaiseki

By far the best way to experience the Japanese cuisine is to book a kaiseki meal, often found in the more luxurious ryokans dotted around the country.

Originally served to the royal noble classes, kaiseki is a traditional multi-course dinner. It features a number of small dishes crafted from fresh seasonal ingredients, beautifully garnished and arranged on the prettiest little plates.

I’d advise to arrive hungry – while the courses are small, there are many of them!

Taken from Wikipedia, the list below accurately describes each kaiseki course. It’s usually fairly easy to customise the meal according to your dietary requirements, and you can request a vegetarian or even vegan option!

  • Sakizuke (先附): a small, bite-sized appetiser.
  • Hassun (八寸): the second course, which sets the seasonal theme. Often one kind of sushi and several smaller side dishes.
  • Mukōzuke (向付): a sliced dish of seasonal sashimi.
  • Takiawase (煮合): vegetables served with meat, fish or tofu; the ingredients are simmered separately.
  • Futamono (蓋物): a lidded dish, typically a soup.
  • Yakimono (焼物): flame-grilled food, usually fish
  • Su-zakana (酢肴): a small dish used to cleanse the palate, such as pickled vegetables.
  • Naka-choko (中猪口): another palate-cleanser, often a light soup.
  • Shiizakana (強肴): a substantial dish such as a hot pot.
  • Gohan (御飯): a rice dish made with seasonal ingredients.
  • Kō no mono (香の物): seasonal pickled vegetables.
  • Tome-wan (止椀): a miso-based or vegetable soup served with rice.
  • Mizumono (水物): a seasonal dessert, often fruit.

This way of eating is the embodiment of omotenashi, a uniquely Japanese approach to hospitality.

While delicious, sitting down to a kaiseki meal can be a little scary. I’ve been pushed very far out of my comfort zone – once I was served fugu, a type of pufferfish that can quite literally kill you if prepared incorrectly. I was also faced with cooking and eating some type of sea urchin that was still alive and squirming!

I managed to survive, and chalked it up to experience.

I’ve been lucky enough to try three or four kaiseki meals during my lifetime, and they are easily the best dining experiences of my life. Served in a private room on tatami-matted floors, the environment is just as beautiful as the food!

Yakiimo

Of course, sometimes you just want a quick bite to eat without going to the trouble of sitting down to a full meal. If you’re looking for a delicious and healthy snack that also doubles as a hand-warmer in colder weather, you can’t go wrong with yakiimo.

Typically sold out of special (and rare!) trucks or carts, yakiimo is a baked sweet potato. They’re huge, flavourful and almost caramelised due to the cooking process – in other words, the best snack in the world.

During my first few visits to Tokyo I would often spot a little old man dragging a large cart through the streets of Ikebukuro. I was always curious to know what he was selling, until one day I watched him exchange what looked like a regular baked potato for a handful of coins.

We began calling him the ‘baked potato man’ and he became a familiar and comforting sight as we walked to and from our ryokan every day.

It wasn’t until last year that I realised he was selling yakiimo, and I could have kicked myself for not taking advantage of this amazing opportunity.

Luckily, many supermarkets have started to sell fresh yakiimo. While I’ve been able to satisfy my sweet potato cravings thanks to shops like Don Quijote, I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for the traditional ‘baked potato man’ when I visit in November.

Fermentation

As I mentioned earlier, fermented foods are an important part of the Japanese diet. I’m convinced that the secret to their beautifully clear skin lies in regular consumption of these unique and flavourful dishes!

The Japanese climate is ideally suited to the fermentation process, which was originally used as a way to preserve foods before the introduction of refrigeration. It’s no surprise, then, that many of their traditional dishes include fermented and pickled foods.

You’ve probably heard of miso and soy sauce, but have you ever tried natto? Fermented soybeans may not sound too appetising, but this dish is surprisingly delicious and incredibly good for you. I also love umeboshi, dried and fermented pickled plums which are often used as a filling for onigiri.

Fermented foods are rich in good bacteria, also known as probiotics. These bacteria have been shown to improve digestion as well as immune function, and have even been linked to decreased instances of acne and improved mental health.

I’ve been making an effort to include more of these dishes in my everyday diet, and my skin is thanking me for it!

Katsu Curry

Of course, there are far too many traditional Japanese dishes to list here – there’s zaru soba, cold soba noodles served with a delicious dipping sauce and crispy vegetable tempura. Another must-try is yakiitori, skewered meat or vegetables grilled to perfection. You can’t go wrong with a bowl of steaming hot ramen, a delicately crafted piece of sushi or even a simple onigiri from the convenience store.

However, I had to mention one of my favourites: katsu curry.

I always thought of curry as a uniquely Indian dish, but the Japanese have somehow managed to make it taste even better. Introduced to Japan during the Meiji era, curry was first brought over by the British who ruled the Indian subcontinent at the time.

It’s funny to think that katsu curry is a Japanese version of a British version of a traditional Indian meal! Armed with this knowledge, you won’t be surprised to learn that the Japanese take on curry is pretty far removed from the original Indian dish.

Katsu curry is less spicy and creamy than the Indian version, and is served over sticky rice. The Japanese enjoy adding breaded meat to their curry along with cheese and even more adventurous toppings such as sausage, squid and even hamburger!

I prefer to stick with the vegetable version, known as a yasai katsu curry. In my opinion, Coco Ichibanya does it best – they even have a dedicated vegan menu, so you can rest assured that there are no sneaky chunks of pork in the sauce.

They recently opened up a branch here in London, so you can get a taste of Japanese cuisine without having to travel across the world!

Dining Habits

I recently learned that the Japanese are taught to eat 30 different ingredients each day, which should naturally lead to the consumption of 100 different ingredients every week.

Here in the UK this could prove difficult (although, I usually get pretty close!) as we often eat from a single plate and pile it high with two or three types of food.  Our portions are large, but contain only a handful of individual ingredients.

In Japan, meals are often served on a number of small dainty dishes similar to a kaiseki. You’ll receive a bowl of rice, a few pieces of sushi, pickled vegetables, a cup of miso soup… the list goes on!

The portions are very small, but you’ll receive a large variety of different ingredients in each meal. This is a great way to ensure the consumption of a large variety of vitamins and minerals as well as ensuring a diverse gut flora – all essential to good health.

During my travels I learned that the Japanese make a point of eating until they are 80% full, and they aren’t afraid to leave food on their plates. In fact, it’s encouraged! When dining in Japan, always ensure that at least a few grains of rice remain on your plate – if you eat every single scrap, your host will assume that you are still hungry.

With this emphasis on dietary mindfulness and health, it’s no wonder that the obesity rate in Japan is a minuscule 4%!

The Okinawan Diet

I can’t write about the traditional Japanese diet without mentioning the Okinawans, particularly as I’ve been so inspired by their way of eating.

The people of Okinawa, a chain of islands south of Japan, are famous for being some of the longest living people on the planet. Their diet features a large amount of vegetables along with their famous purple sweet potatoes and regular consumption of fish. They eat less rice than you would expect, and their daily diet has only 30% of the sugar and 15% of the grains of the average Japanese diet.

The Okinawan’s rates of heart disease, diabetes and of course obesity are far lower than almost anywhere else in the world, and many people credit this to their healthy and plant-based diet. Unfortunately the Western way of eating is becoming more widespread throughout Japan, but it’s fascinating to see how little pockets of traditional eating have survived in places like Okinawa.

This post has merely scraped the surface of traditional Japanese cuisine – it’s impossible to do justice to such a unique and varied diet, so I think a second installment may be in order when I return from my trip!

I’m so lucky to be spending the most wonderful time of the year in Japan, and I can’t wait to eat my way across the country and admire the autumn leaves with my favourite person.

November can’t come quickly enough!

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