Japan has topped the WHO’s lists of countries with the highest life expectancy for decades, and a large part of this is likely due to the Japanese cuisine and the diet. But what is it that they eat that is so healthy?
The traditional Japanese diet involves a lot of rice, fish and mear, along with cooked and pickled vegetables. There are also lots of fermented and smoked foods, products made from soybeans, dairy, and vegetables (from both land and sea) such as edamame and seaweed. The Japanese are also fans of matcha tea.
There is great emphasis on the seasonality of food (for example, enjoying bamboo shoots in the spring, and chestnuts in the autumn), which means that there isn’t much preservation involved, traditionally.
Another important factor is how the food is served. Rather than one large serving of each dish, they are traditionally served in small bowls of the many small side dishes (known as okazu) and accompanied by a single serving of rice (known as gohan). Along with this, there may also be clear or miso soup and pickles (called tsukemono).
Various cooking techniques are used for the okazu, such as grilling, boiled, steamed, deep-fried, dressed in vinegar, or even eaten raw. This means that the food is prepared with little oil (apart from deep-fried foods)
So is diet responsible for Japan’s impressive health and longevity? Let’s take a look.
Popular and Healthy Japanese Dishes You Can Try
Sushi is made with vinegared sushi rice (shari) topped, or mixed with, seafood or vegetables. There are various forms of this popular Japanese dish. The various ingredients may be placed on top of a block of rice, or (as is perhaps more famous) rolled inside it. Sushi is often served with pickled ginger (gari), wasabi, and soy sauce. Sheets of black seaweed wrappers (called nori) may also be used as a wrap.
With the main ingredients being rice, fish, and vegetables, sushi is high in protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, as are its accompaniments such as gari and nori. Fish is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids which have a range of beneficial properties, especially to cardiovascular health. While there are some health risks when it comes to the types of sushi containing raw fish, particularly parasitic infections, these can be greatly reduced by practices such as super-freezing.
This Japanese rice cake is made of short-grain glutinous rice (mochigome) that is pounded into paste and moulded into shapes along with water, sugar and cornstarch. Mochi is eaten year-round but is traditionally associated with the Japanese New Year. It comes in many flavours and with filings (when it becomes known as daifuku) such as sweetened red bean paste (anko), white bean paste (shiro an), or plums.
Though mochi is high in carbohydrates, proteins, and in calories, it is gluten- and cholesterol-free, as it is made from rice flour. Additionally, it was traditionally consumed it during the winter to increase stamina, and taken as a packed food as it is easy to carry.
This traditional Japanese soup is made with miso (a thick paste of fermenting soybeans), which is added to a clear broth or stock (called dashi). A few solid ingredients, such as seaweed, vegetables or tofu are also usually added according to seasonal and personal choices.
Miso soup is said to contain various essential bacteria that promote good health, and also low in calories, but is filling due to the high protein content.
Edamame are boiled and salted green soybeans that are eaten as a snack. The beans usually remain inside the pod and are usually consumed when still fresh. They are a popular accompaniment (sakana) with beer. Edamame are gluten-free and rich in proteins, dietary fibre, iron and calcium as well as various micronutrients.
Zōsui & Okayu
Zōsui, also sometimes known as ojiya, is a mild rice soup that is made with pre-cooked rice and water or stock that is seasoned with miso or soy sauce. Other ingredients, such as egg, meat, seafood, vegetables or mushrooms may also be added. Another similar dish is okayu, a thick rice porridge that is made with raw rice cooked water or dashi stock. It may be served with ginger, umeboshi (pickled plums), or just salt.
Zōsui and okayu are usually eaten in the winter, and may be served to infants and sick people, as there is no oil, and it is easily digested and does not put a burden on the stomach. Additionally, the salt in the porridge helps to absorb more liquids, while the ginger is good for both nausea and digestion.
This traditional Japanese dessert (sometimes called zenzai) is a sweet porridge made with red bean paste. There are two types of shiruko based on the way the red beans (azuki) are cooked – one where they are completely crushed into a condensed paste without retaining their original shape, and one where there is a mixture of paste and roughly crushed beans. Shiruko is usually served with mochi or rice flour dumplings.
This dessert is usually enjoyed warm in the winter. Red beans are an excellent source of fibre and proteins while remaining low in calories, so they fill you up and help slow down sugar absorption.
Ohitashi are boiled greens, such as spinach, that are chilled and flavoured with soy sauce. Traditionally, the greens are meant to be soaked in soup stock. They are garnished with dried bonito flakes or sesame seeds and serve a popular side dish. Spinach and other greens are a rich source of iron and vitamin K. They are also an excellent source of calcium, potassium, and dietary fibre.
Hoshigaki are dried persimmons that are a popular snack food across East Asia. The persimmons are harvested before they are fully ripe, and are thus remain slightly bitter. The fruit are peeled and the tops cut off, with the stem remaining; they are them suspended by their stems to dry.
Persimmons are an excellent source of dietary fibre and vitamin C.
Literally translating to “bowl” donburi are Japanese rice bowl dishes where fish, meat, vegetables or other ingredients are cooked together in a sauce and served over rice. There are many varieties of donburi, but the most popular include Gyūdon (rice topped with seasoned beef and onion), Butadon (rice topped with pork in a mildly sweet sauce), Unadon (rice topped with broiled eel and vegetables), Tekkadon (rice topped with tuna sashimi), and Katsudon (rice topped with deep-fried breaded pork cutlets).
Most donburi are a complete meal in themselves, with single servings of meat, vegetables, and rice all providing the required amounts of proteins, vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates.
Tsukemono are the many varieties of pickled vegetables that are served with rice-based meals. The vegetables are pickled in a special press with salt or vinegar and are served with rice as an okazu (side dish), or with alcoholic drinks as a sakana (snack). There are many types of tsukemono, but some of the most popular inculde: takuan (pickled daikon or radish), gari (thinly sliced pickled ginger), fukujinzuke (a mixture of pickled daikon, eggplant, lotus root and cucumber which is flavoured with soy sauce and used as a condiment), nukazuke (vegetables such as eggplant, daikon, cabbage, carrot, and cucumber fermented in rice bran – or nuka), and umeboshi (pickled ume, or Japanese plums).
Tsukemono are essentially ‘preserved vegetables,’ and while it is said that they may be higher in sodium as compared to fresh vegetables and that pickling and fermentation reduce vitamin C, they are still an excellent source of health-promoting probiotics that are good for your gut. They also retain their original Vitamin A, and vitamin B, as well as dietary fibres.
Yōkan is a thick jelly-like dessert that is made from red bean paste, agar, and sugar. It is usually formed into blocks that are sliced and eaten. Yōkan may also contain chopped chestnuts or persimmons. Ther are also varieties made from white bean paste (shiro an) that are often flavoured and coloured with matcha green tea powder.
Red beans are an excellent source of dietary fibre and proteins while remaining low in calories, so they fill you up and also help to slow down the absorption of sugar. Much like mochi, this dessert is easy to carry and can also be stored for long periods of time.
Wakame is a type of edible seaweed that is extremely popular throughout Japan. With a subtly sweet and salty, but distinctive flavour, it is often served in soups and salads. It is usually either dried or salted and may be dressed with soy sauce and rice vinegar. Other edible seaweeds common in Japanese cuisine include kajime, hirome (also called kombu), and arame.
Wakame is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, and also has high levels of calcium and iodine. A study at Hokkaido University also found that wakame is a source of fucoxanthin, a compound that can help burn fatty tissue.