When I was little, my mem (mother in Frisian) used to feed me slippery seaweed and chunks of tofu on a regular basis in addition to the five algae pills I took every afternoon. It was hyper-healthy and based on traditional Japanese ideas on healthy eating. Last month I flew to the land of the rising sun myself to still my hunger for food inspiration. I didn’t go for the sushi and noodles… We already know all about these. What’s so much more interesting is the super-healthy, traditional Japanese diet that consists primarily of seaweed, local vegetables, soy and fish.
The Okinawa islands, south of Tokyo, are home to people with amazing longevity. As a ‘health freak’, ‘foodie’ and someone who is perpetually curious, I wanted to get to the bottom of this. What does their lifestyle look like and what makes them more fit at 95 than I sometimes feel? So I got in a plane and flew 12 hours to get the answers I was looking for.
Dream come true
Before I went to the islands, I made a stop in Tokyo. This beautiful city has undoubtedly been influenced by Western culture, but it has managed to maintain its own, crazy take on living and eating. There’s no way of avoiding American chains, but in Tokyo, the Japanese version of fast food – which consists of things like noodles with fish, pork, seaweed and, of course, sushi – remains ubiquitous. It’s also fantastic to see how the Japanese are able to both spend hours at the table with friends enjoying tiny portions of food and put away a bowl of noodle soup during their lunch break.
After a couple of days in the big city, I went to the Okinawa islands – a vacation destination for many Japanese people – for two weeks. Wow! It was amazing. I enjoyed the relaxed vibe there so much. In the small villages, the people enjoy the fresh sea air and their social lives. They also invest a lot of time in cooking and eating good food. It’s precisely the food that we’re not yet familiar with that’s so delicious. Think champuru, goya, soba, umi budo and shiquasa. Say whaaaat? Okay, allow me to explain…
The Okinawa food culture can be summed up in one word: champuru. The literal translation of champuru is ‘mixture’, which refers to a fusion of different cuisines like Japanese, Chinese, South Asian and North American. And, just as people have different ways of thinking, everyone has their own special champuru recipe. Champuru are usually named after their main constituent ingredient and they vary enormously. I love all of them! I’m going to do my best to come up with my own recipe.
This vegetable is a sort of combination of cucumber and unripe melon. The Japanese often incorporate it into a champuru. It tastes quite bitter, but you get used to it quickly and after that you’re hooked. Goya is also sold in Asian food stores and right when I got home, I stocked up. It is very healthy as it stimulates the metabolism, keeps your blood sugar in balance and contains lots of folic acid and vitamins C, A and B. I’m a fan!
Soba is the Japanese name for buckwheat. On Okinawa, they make thin noodles from buckwheat flour that they sometimes serve cool with a sauce or in a hot bouillon. I have been using buckwheat in recipes for a while (it appears in my book, Powerfood), as it’s more easily digestible than wheat flour. Furthermore, buckwheat is high in lysine and the composition of amino acids it contains makes buckwheat protein almost as high quality as that of the best animal-based protein.
Umi budo (or sea grapes) is consumed widely in Okinawa. It’s also referred to as ‘green caviar’, as there are shiny green bubbles on the leaves. Umi budo contains an amazing amount of minerals, is rich in iodine and is a good source of magnesium. It’s delicious in a salad, on top of a rice dish or alongside fish dishes like sashimi. It’s also tasty as a snack if you dip it in soya sauce or vinegar. It has an addictive texture: the green pearls pop open in your mouth, just like caviar. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to source umi budo in the Netherlands.
In addition to the sea grapes, the Japanese also eat other seaweed that you can get in the Netherlands. Seaweed is extraordinarily rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and trace elements. It’s bursting with iodine and it contains high concentrations of iron, folic acid and vitamin B5. My advice: eat miso with soba noodles and seaweed more often.
Shiquasa / Shikuwasa
These delicious little green citrus fruits, about the size of limes, are filled with seeds and are as acidic as oranges. Shiquasa are high in vitamin C, and they keep your blood sugar and blood pressure in check. They are grown on Okinawa and people say that this fruit is the reason why the Okinawan people live so long…
In reading this, I’m sure you have an inkling as to why Okinawan people live so long. They eat primarily local foods that are bursting with nutrients that make your body happy. Everything they eat is exceedingly healthy and they eat a varied diet. We can learn something from this. And that’s not all… When I spoke to some of the people on Okinawa, I learned that everyone does everything at their own pace. Life is calm there. They have a rich social life, laugh a lot, don’t have a great deal of stress, enjoy the sun, work hard, are always working toward some kind of goal and they eat crops that grow on their own land.
After my Japan trip, I realized that the lifestyle there has a lot in common with the one I grew up with. My mother, at sixty years old, is still in the prime of her life. She has a big social network, she works in the garden if she can or sweats it out on the tennis court. She eats a varied diet that’s pure and not too heavy, but she also enjoys a good cake every now and then. I actually don’t really have to look very far for inspiration, but Japan still opened my eyes. From now on I’m going to concentrate more on my social life and keeping my stress levels down. I’m considering doing laugh therapy and maybe spending a bit more time in the fresh air on an island close to Amsterdam ; – )
Arigatooooo, xoxo Rens
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