|Photo courtesy of topwalls.net|
Okay, so I love food. I believe that food is not only a means of survival, taste or nourishment, but it is actually one of the best ways (if not best) to learn about a culture or person. While studying at UO, travelling and now living in Japan, I have discovered that the food that people consume speak loudly about who they are, where they are from and what they believe. It’s how people connect to their surroundings, to their loved ones, new acquaintances and to themselves. And in Japan, this couldn’t be more true.
Japanese cuisine is unique because it is less of a food culture and more of a lifestyle. The food is always fresh, frequently fermented, truly organic, and always seasonal. The Japanese believe in balance and an “everything-in-moderation” diet. Take this segment I found on a Japanese website for example:
Balance is important. Foods that are too sweet, too salty, too spicy and drinks that are too cold will stress your body and pull it out of balance. When you are out of balance, cravings start, tiredness sets in and a whole host of other effects come into play. When your body is strong and you are balanced, a little stress is ok. A cup of coffee or a small bowl of ice cream may be fine. However, when a person makes a habit of poor eating and lifestyle choices, the body becomes weak and imbalanced.
It’s all about finding a balance!
The traditional Japanese diet consists of a variety of ingredients that work together to nourish the body. You will find (for really cheap!!!) fresh, seasonal vegetables (the pickled kind are my favorite), fish from the ocean and local rivers, white rice that is harvested by neighbors, meat that is raised by the local farmer and miso and other fermented products that provide essential nutrients and vitamins. This is NORMAL. Not specially labelled organic, not at the farmers market. Right inside every single store. This is the main reason why Japan has one of the longest life expectancy rates! And also why we sometimes feel like the only residents under 70…
For me, this is more than just a nice new outlook on nutrition. As much as I love food, over the past years I have struggled with my own relationship to food, nutrition and body image. In high school, I began to educate myself on the art of cutting calories to lose weight, which was a change that worked dramatically. I loved how it felt, I loved the compliments and I loved buying new clothes. It quickly became an idol and a problem. Continuing until the end of my first year in college, I didn’t want the pounds to stop coming off. But then reality hit; my body stopped functioning in ways that it should and I realized that something needed to change. I began introducing things back into my diet that I had cut out for so long. I also consumed more calories per meal and learned that it’s okay to indulge and feed my crazy cravings.
After years of rigorously counting calories and afraid to gain any weight, getting used to a healthy, whole, balanced diet is a long process. One that was both physically and mentally challenging. When I got over the mental hurdle, the physical hurdle stood taller. By eating tiny meals consisting of little to no fat and lots of fake additives and preservatives for so long, I had shrunk my stomach and caused damage to my digestive track. It seemed that the smallest things would make me cramped, bloated and in terrible pain because my body didn’t know how to absorb the new things I was introducing to my diet. I thought my restrictive diet alone had damaged my health, but I am starting to realize this was only part of the problem.
Moving to Japan has been a colorful culinary experience that both Jon and I have quickly adapted to. We consume primarily a Japanese diet, preparing our own meals and trying new dishes every week and occasionally treating ourselves to a meal at one of the delicious restaurants in the area. The variety of food is insane and the portions are MASSSSSIVE. Jon and I both eat more than we ever did in the US. And I mean A LOT MORE. And the weird thing: I FEEL GREAT. But what does this mean? I point my finger to the food itself. It wasn’t just the amount I was eating before that caused problems. It was the quality of what I was eating.
Now in Japan, I have enjoyed the luxury of eating large meals with confidence that I will feel full but not sick. Eating large meals knowing that it has been grown naturally, prepared with care and all of its nutrients. I didn’t have that confidence in the US, and when I did, my wallet was drained. And yes, I have major cravings for many non-Japanese things, and I do indulge in a lot of “comfort” meals and a small dessert every night. But they are whole and they are healthy because the ingredients are fresh and local! Everything in moderation. My body never felt so nourished.
In the next post we will share a list of our favorite Japanese foods! So stay tuned!