I was born in Japan’s capital city, Tokyo and moved to Osaka – another large city – when I was 10 in the 1980s. But my parents are originally from the Japanese countryside.
I grew up eating Japanese food but, at the time, I wasn’t aware that the Japanese diet we were following was regarded as one of the healthiest in the world.
The food we ate was always simple, purely because of my mother’s limited skills in the kitchen. My mum is not a good cook: she can boil, grill and make a bowl of miso soup, but she can’t cook anything fancy.
So we used to eat steamed rice, miso soup, grilled fish, tofu with grated ginger and boiled vegetables served with soy sauce. We also used to eat lots of types of seaweed served with grated yam or daikon. Most of our dishes were created with the least amount of cooking possible.
I grew up eating, old-fashioned, Japanese food but, at the time, I wasn’t aware that the Japanese diet we were following was regarded as one of the healthiest in the world.
An unhealthy version of a healthy diet
In 1998, when I was 25, I moved from Japan to Australia. What I noticed is that the Japanese food served here in Australia was very far removed from the Japanese home-based cooking I was familiar with.
That’s because a lot of the Japanese food available in many Australian restaurants is often deep-fried. Some of the popular Japanese dishes in the west, like teriyaki, are also served with much more sugar than we prepare it within Japan.
I have been a chef for over 10 years and can say that we often like to cook the way people enjoy eating. So many chefs are more concerned about taste and flavour than health. So we might put in a little extra butter, oil, salt or sugar in your dish if it helps it to taste better – even though it’s not a healthy version of a traditional dish.
Where are we going wrong?
I also feel that people in Australia like to eat a lot more sushi than people in Japan do. And it’s often eaten with mayonnaise or a sweet sauce. To me, that’s a westernised version of sushi and not the way we would usually have it in Japan.
The fact is Japanese rice (that’s used for sushi) has one of the highest sugar contents of all rice and is quite unhealthy when compared to other types, like basmati rice. But in Japan, we typically eat lots of little tiny dishes consisting of [some rice], a lot of seaweed and vegetables, and some meat but not a lot of it.
In Japan, we also believe in balance. We balance the nutrition of our food and eat a range of foods. Here, the Japanese food is often out of balance because it has to be, first and foremost, tasty.
There are also certain food rules for traditional Japanese eating that promotes good health. For example, when we do eat deep-fried foods, we eat them with grated white radish, which breaks down the fat and protein of the deep-fried foods. This doesn’t normally happen here in Australia when people order deep-fried dishes.
In Japan, we also believe in balance. We balance the nutrition of our food and eat a range of foods. Here, the Japanese food is sometimes not balanced because it has to be, first and foremost, tasty.
How to cook healthy Japanese food at home
If you love Japanese food and want to eat healthier, then the best thing to do is cook at traditional dishes at home using authentic, high quality, artisan ingredients.
You can cut down on the amount of fried food you eat and cook a healthy teriyaki dish by adding less sugar. You can also eat a broader range of vegetables, along with small amounts of rice or sushi.
Think about adding seaweed like nori or wakame to your salads. Just be aware that seaweed is supposed to be dark green or nearly black. If you see seaweed that is very bright green you know it is full of artificial colours and chemicals. Make sure you check the labels to guarantee that what you think is seaweed is actually made of 100 per cent seaweed and is authentically made in Japan.
To enjoy a healthy miso soup at home, buy organic, unpasteurised miso from a health food store, as this is often the best quality sold in Australia. This ensures the enzymes and probiotics are still alive. Also, quality miso is made from sea salt rather than chemically produced salt.
If you can buy traditional Japanese ingredients and cook at home, I really do believe you will get healthier and perhaps even reap the benefits of the Japanese diet, that’s famous around the world.
Yoshiko Takeuchi is a cookbook author and qualified chef with a bachelor in nutrition who also runs a cooking school.