Washoku (Japanese cuisine), saving mankind

A vegetable diet making your body healthy from inside and the power of soy beans

“The Washoku centered diet has prolonged the average life expectancy of Japanese people. To put it boldly, Washoku is a healthy food that saves mankind.”

Autumn vegetables and mushrooms

What Dr. Koizumi focuses on is the fact that “the basic ingredients of Washoku are vegetables”. Washoku uses fish and meat as well, but he says, “the main dish of traditional Washoku uses root vegetables such as Japanese radishes and potatoes, greens, edible wild plants in spring, mushrooms from the mountains in autumn, as well as beans and seaweeds. In addition, seasonal ingredients that are most nutritious and most delicious are cleverly used as well. This is the wisdom of Japanese food culture.”

Vegetables are low in calories but they also contain dietary fiber which activates movement of the intestines and increases intestinal bacteria which is good for your health. He says, “Many people claim to be relieved of constipation after eating Washoku. A healthy intestine increases immune strength. Washoku also reduces the risk of adult diseases that trouble modern people. “

Soy beans, the source of protein for Washoku
Rice and miso soup, a staple dishes of Washoku

Dr. Koizumi also pays attention to the power of soy beans, the basic ingredient of Washoku. He says, “Soy beans contain so much protein, equivalent to the amount contained in beef, they are called the meat that grows in a field. During the Edo period (17th-19th century), miso soup with tofu containing ground natto or fermented soy beans, and abura-age (thinly sliced tofu deep fried in vegetable oil) was the source of stamina for workmen. ” Rice and miso soup are still the staple dishes of Washoku.

Dashi (fish stock) culture, letting the world experience its refined taste and flavor

Dashi brings out the umami (flavor) of Washoku

“The secret to the taste of Washoku is in the dashi culture” says Dr. Koizumi. Dashi is an extract taken from boiling dried ingredients including kelp, shiitake mushrooms and bonito shavings (processed food made by fermenting bonito). This is the basic seasoning of Japanese food and is used for making soups such as miso soup, soup for udon and soba noodles and for cooking vegetables.

Good dashi is clear in color

“What’s amazing about dashi is that no grease components come floating up in the soup even though it uses dried bonito shavings, whose basic ingredient is fatty bonito. This is because fermentative bacteria in dried bonito shavings discomposes grease components. The refined pure taste of Washoku all depends on the umami of dashi. It has been said that human beings have the sense of 5 different tastes of sweet, spicy, salty, sour and bitter, but the dashi culture introduced the taste of umami to the world.”

The characteristics of fish stock in Japan vary in each area. Roughly speaking, Kansai region mainly uses a lightly flavored soup made from kelp and Kanto region mainly uses a strongly flavored soup made from bonito. The look and the taste of udon soup is also different in the Kanto and Kansai regions.

“Nihonbashi Dashi Bar”, experience the taste of fresh dashi

“Ninben”, a shop specializing in dried bonito shavings with more than 300 years of history, has opened the “Nihonbashi Dashi Bar”, an eat-in store where you can taste authentic dashi, in COREDO Muromachi in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. You can taste fresh dashi with one coin (100 yen), a place not to miss for those who want to experience the dashi culture of Japan.

The fermentation culture is what supports the healthy Washoku

Miso (soybean paste), fermented food that represents Japan

Another factor that played a leading role in cultivating rich and healthy Japanese food culture is fermentation. There are many kinds of fermented food in the world, but fermented food in Japan has an outstanding variety. “The humid weather in Japan is optimum for microbes to be active. People in Japan have used fermentation in their food culture for more than 1,300 years, using many microbes that exist only in Japan.”

Soy sauce, miso and mirin (sweet cooking rice wine) are essential to Japanese food and all are seasonings that utilize fermentation. Miso, made by aging a mix of cereal grains, salt and koji (heated cereal grain that is fermented), is an especially healthy food containing plenty of protein and amino acids and it even used to be eaten as a side dish in the past.

Letting it rest for a long time makes delicious miso

Each area has a different kind of miso. For example, Hatcho miso, used for Miso Katsu (pork cutlet with miso-based sauce) which is a local specialty of Nagoya, is a miso made from soybeans, and is said to have the longest history in miso culture. Masuzuka Miso in Toyota City, Aichi Prefecture, one of the manufacturers of Hatcho Miso, has preserved the traditional method where they let miso sit rest in a wooden tub for 18 months with stones on it as a weight.

Moromi, made by fermenting a mix of sticky rice, malted rice and shochu (distilled spirit) is the main ingredient of mirin (sweet cooking rice wine)
Mirin (right) that was left to rest for 3 years is rich and mellow

The delicious and appetizing smell coming from cooked dishes and broiled eels is all thanks to mirin. Hakusen Shuzou in the town of Kawabe, Gifu Prefecture, located almost in the center of Honshu, has preserved a traditional method of manufacturing mirin where they mix steamed sticky rice with malted rice and shochu to promote glycation. Alcohol in mirin helps ingredients to absorb flavor and maintains their firmness. Moreover, sugar in mirin adds sweetness and delicious looking gloss to the dish.

Japan, the kingdom of fermentation, where wisdom from the past is still preserved

Nukazuke pickles made with hull and rice bran, a by-product of polishing rice

The power of fermentation is essential for the many side dishes of Washoku. Nukazuke pickles that come with Japanese set meals are made using fermented rice bran. People enjoy pickling Japanese radishes, cucumbers, eggplants and, recently, seasonal vegetables such as watermelons, broccoli and tomatoes as well.

Nare-zushi of mackerel

Being surrounded by ocean, Japan has a variety of fermented seafood dishes. The origin of sushi, one of the popular Washoku dishes, is also a fermented food. “Nare-zushi”, where fish is fermented with salt and rice in order to keep longer, comes from the wisdom of the period when there were no refrigerators. You can sill find “Nare-zushi” unique to each area all over Japan.

Healthy and delicious Washoku keeps people in good shape. Let’s visit Japan and enjoy authentic Washoku!

Dr. Takeo Koizumi, is an honorary professor of Tokyo University of Agriculture. He is director of the Fermentation-culture Promotion Agency and serves concurrently as a food-related advisor for many national and local governmental groups. He has written more than one hundred books relating to food.