Jane is a part-time ESL teacher in rural Japan and a full-time mom to one girl. She is tri-lingual and has lived in Japan for over 20 years.
Sushi, sashimi, tofu, shiitake mushroom, miso soup, and edamame are Japanese foods that many, if not most, Westerners have become familiar with and associate with a healthy diet. And they are (healthy, that is), but I would like to introduce a few other health food items and ingredients in the Japanese diet that may not be too familiar to the regular person but are just as healthy (if not healthier) and nutritious.
Next time you venture forth to an Asian or international food store (or you can always easily order them online) and/or yearn for an adventurous culinary experience at home, consider these:
Bitter gourds (also called balsam pears or bitter melons), called "goya" in Japanese, are a fruit (technically) used mainly in traditional Okinawan dishes. Bitter gourds have a deep green color and bumpy texture and as the name suggests, taste bitter. They are excellent sources of dietary fiber and vitamin A, B1, B2, C and K. They also contain minerals like calcium, phosphorus, iron, copper, magnesium, zinc, manganese and potassium. The most famous Japanese (Okinawan) dish that uses bitter gourds is called "goya-champuru", which is a sitr-fried dish with pork, sliced bitter gourds (scraped of inside pulp and seeds and soaked in salt prior to cooking in order to reduce bitterness), tofu and eggs.
Yeah, yeah, we all know seaweed. It's that green sheet that's wrapped around sushi, right? Yes, but that's just one kind of seaweed (called "nori"). There are other kinds as well such as wakame (usually used in miso soup), kombu (usually used to make soup stock for stewed dishes). The kind I really would like to introduce is called "mozuku". Slimy in appearance and texture, mozuku is brown seaweed usually served in rice vinegar sauce as a side dish. Like most seaweed, mozuku is rich in minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium, but perhaps the most beneficial nutrient is fucoidan. Numerous studies have shown that fucoidan helps enhance the immunity system and cellular health and can maybe even help fight cancer.
Nattou, usually eaten with rice for breakfast, is a fermented soybean that has a pungent smell and is an acquired taste, even for many Japanese (I personally have grown to like it well enough). While different regions have different styles of serving nattou, the basic way of eating it is by adding soy sauce and Japanese mustard (karashi) to kill the smell. Mix it well and it turns into a sticky, stringy glob. Nattou is especially rich in vitamins K1 and K2 and PPQ, which is an important nutrient for healthy skin.
Okara, sometimes known as "soy pulp" or "tofu lees", has basically the same nutrients as tofu since it's just whatever is leftover from the tofu-making process. Aside from the usual vitamins and minerals, which okara has an abundance of, three nutrients are worthy of note: lecithin, which some studies have shown to help decrease the bad cholesterol and increase the good cholesterol, saponin, which is believed to be beneficial to bone health and the digestive system, and isoflavone, which functions similarly to the female hormone, estrogen, and therefore, is believed to help prevent certain types of breast cancer and bone loss or osteoporosis. As a matter of fact, okara is so famously healthy that it is recently used as an ingredient in many cookies and snacks in health food stores everywhere!
Fu is gluten extracted from rye or wheat flour. Fu also comes in a variety of shapes, colors and sizes depending on where and how it's made. Some are shaped into tiny traditional Japanese balls; some look like fall maple leaves; some are disc-shaped and still others are simple round or rectangular blocks. Though they may all look different, they all are rich sources of protein, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron and phosphorus. Fu is most commonly used in simmered or stewed dishes or in miso soup because it can absorb the flavors very easily (like a sponge) and make for a delicious and flavorful ingredient.
If it isn't obvious by now, you will notice that all the food items listed above are also extremely low in calories, which is definitely a big plus to the health and weight-conscious. One other common attribute is that all of the food items listed above are eaten in Okinawa -- the southern group of islands where the people are famously renowned for having the longest and healthiest life expectancies in all of Japan. Though many factors contribute to a long life, diet is obviously a major factor. As opposed to, say, exercise, choosing to eat healthy food is relatively easy to do. You can still stuff your face with pizza and wash it down with beer if you are so inclined, but you can always start slow by maybe substituting just one meal per week with something healthy and go on from there.
Useful Sources for Recipes and Such
- Japanese food and Japanese recipes
Information about Japanese food and Japanese cooking, including lots of Japanese recipes and Japanese food pictures.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Moxy Lewis from London on November 16, 2010:
Great info! Thx for the hub and sushi is one of my favourites!
luvintkandtj from USA on June 16, 2010:
Although I'm American, I was raised Japanese. My mom and grandmother are Japanese so I have more of a Japanese appetite. My kids are the same way.
Jane Simmons (author) from Niigata on June 15, 2010:
Thanks for your comment, Luvintkandtj :) I'm actually surprised that you like nattou! It doesn't seem like a lot of non-Japanese ever develop a taste for it. I like konnyaku as well .. they seem kinda bland at first, but when you cook them long in the sauce, it tastes soooo good!!! :) Hope you're enjoying Tokyo .. we're in the countryside and I miss the convenience of living in a big city sometimes ..
luvintkandtj from USA on June 14, 2010:
I love nattou for break fast with rice and mido soup. My kids like it as well. But then again my daughter love konnyaku
Jane Simmons (author) from Niigata on May 08, 2010:
Thanks, prasetio. If I remember correctly, in Thailand we use bitter melons in curry as well :)
prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on May 08, 2010:
This was great information. I think we can found many healthy food from Japan. I found the same plant with my mother usually cooked, that was Bitter gourd. The bitter taste but give us a lot benefit for our health. But most of those food we can found in Japan. Good work. I really enjoy read this hub. Thumbs Up for you!
Jane Simmons (author) from Niigata on May 02, 2010:
Thanks for your comment, Peggy! I actually like bitter melons a lot, but aside from the Okinawan stir fry, I've never made anything with it myself :P I know you can also slice it really thinly and use it in salads. Let me know if you ever do try it! :)
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 01, 2010:
You certainly introduced some new food items to me in this hub. I have seen bitter melons in the stores but had no idea what to do with them. Thanks for all of this good information.