Eat from the EAST: What I learned in Japan

….perhaps we all should be TURNING JAPANESE, like the ‘80s hit that predated my birth.

I recently returned from a delicious honeymoon in the VERY exotic land of Japan. As a scientist, I’m always struck by observing patterns of human behavior and food intake of other cultures. My poor husband had to drag me out of every convenience store because I was obsessed with studying the food product lineup.

I was indomitably vexed by eating in Japan; these tiny waif-like people seemed to ALWAYS be eating, and usually eating something NOT #essenceapproved. Whether it was a 14 course Omekase meal complete with white rice, tempura, copious amounts of sake, matcha ice cream, various forms of candies and cakes, beef tallow, and white noodles, I was continuously stunned at these gargantuan appetites that mismatched with body size.

BUT, I will tell you, there are some Japanese matcha pearls I noted that I’d love to bring back to the West. I can’t tell you how these minuscule munchers maintain their figures (I hypothesize that it is HIGHLY genetic/innately metabolic), but I can tell you that we have a lot to learn:

  1. CHOPSTICKS. You physically cannot binge on rice with chopsticks. It’s impossible to ‘shovel’ anything into your mouth (though I was reprimanded for taking a bite out of sushi) so you therefore eat SLOWER, and probably fill up faster
  2. Portion sizes, like everything in Japan, are tiny. A ‘Bento box’ is a little lunch plate with 6-12 compartments, each about 2 inches by 2 inches, filled with a different food. There is no 8 oz steak here. You get a few slivers of Wagyu in your soup. You could eat that much lard every day and probably still be fine, so self-portioning here is key.
  3. Pickles. EVERYTHING here is pickled. The fish. The veggies. The plums. Even the rice is pickled in vinegar, which actually makes you absorb less carbohydrate from it. Pickling = probiotics = happy immune systems and tummies. Sake is basically fermented rice wine, and they do NOT do sugary cocktails in Japan, so that’s another nutrition plus.
  4. Persimmons. The fruit game in Japan is weak – they basically only have apples, bananas, pears, and PERSIMMONS, which are abundant and contain a wealth of antioxidants. They’re also frequently eaten as dessert since they are so succulent.
  5. Breakfast is POWERFUL. It’s fish / egg / vegetable-based, with a few fruits / perhaps some plain yogurt on the side. No peach candy yogurt here, and certainly no cereal / processed grains. Bread is a luxury found in French cafes here. All that protein at breakfast certainly prevents daytime snacking (though results in some GNARLY breath)
  6. Matcha and tea in general. Matcha is EVERYWHERE. I still feel like there is some matcha powder lining my nostrils. Matcha is highly anti-inflammatory and has been linked to the prevention of various diseases. The Japanese also are constantly drinking other teas (ceylon, pekoe, etc.) and every tea has a unique disease-fighting property, so these people are constantly on the disease offense.
  7. Eating amongst friends and family. Even though I still find it vastly uncomfortable to sit on the floor, it’s nice to eat ‘family style’ so you can not feel compelled to finish your plate. You serve yourself what looks like a decent portion and the pressure is off as far as ‘omg I have to finish this or else’ – there’s ALWAYS more!
  8. Fish, fish, and more fish. 7 AM? It’s dried sardines o’clock. Prawns at 3 PM with the eyes still visible? Sure. The omega-3 intake of this country’s population is TREMENDOUS. I see how the cardiovascular disease rate is lower than… a very respectful bow. (Side note: even the dog treats are fish-based. Don’t ask how I know.)
  9. No leftovers. Though disappointing for me, as I LIVE off of leftovers, I suppose this prevents late night mindless eating /picking at leftovers. I think I almost disgraced all of my ancestors by asking for a to-go box.
  10. These people MOVE. They routinely walk ~7-10 miles in a day; and most of the country bikes at LEAST 30-45 minutes EACH WAY to get to work daily. No HIIT 40 dollar classes here, these people have made movement part of their lifestyle. Plus, it’s cold as heck, so that burns a few extra calories.

I’m thrilled to be back in the land of the Whole Foods salad bar and oatmeal, but I’m enjoying my daily matcha latte and hope we can fuse some of this Eastern nutrition happiness into our Western lives.

Essentially Yours / Arigato Goizemasu,
Monica