Friday 23 March 2018

Japanese food: the secret to a long life

It's no coincidence that Japan has the largest population of centenarians

Ella Griffin with a bowl of endamame beans. Photo: Damien Eagers
Ella Griffin with a bowl of endamame beans. Photo: Damien Eagers
Japanese food contains plenty of fish,veg and rice

Ella Griffin

There is a Zen story about an important-looking man heading somewhere on a galloping horse. Seeing him, a man on the roadside shouts: "Where are you going?" The rider shouts back: "I don't know, ask the horse."

The horse is the force of our habits. Most of the time, they take us off in directions that we don't want to go. We spend our lives struggling to break them but the problem is, most of the time, they're stronger than we are.

For a long time, I had a whole stable full of bad eating habits. I blamed them on low blood sugar and lack of willpower but I couldn't seem to get a handle on them.

Porridge, which was supposed to be slow release, just made me hungry. If I ate a bowl at 8am I'd be ravenous by 11am. If I gave in to the joys of a buttered baguette or a bowl of pasta at lunch, then I'd feel as if I'd taken a fistful of sleeping pills by mid afternoon. Chocolate made me happy but left me snappy. I used to fill my fridge with leafy greens then watch them wilt in the salad crisper, while I ate my own body weight in Ginger Nuts.

I lived by the 80:20 rule. Except in my case, just 80pc of what I ate made me feel miserable.

Then, in April last year, on a whim, I booked a €25, three-hour Japanese cookery demo with a chef called Fiona Uyema. Neil and I have always loved Asian food and we made our way out to the Miele Showrooms expecting to have an enjoyable evening. Hoping to pick up a couple of recipes that we might try at some stage. Instead, we stumbled into changing our whole approach to eating.

Fiona is from Tipperary but learnt to cook when she was living in Japan. First, she took us on a whistle-stop tour around the main ingredients in Japanese dishes. Shoyu, Japanese soy sauce. Sake and mirin, which are different kinds of rice wine. Seaweed for making dashi, the broth that is the basis of so many Japanese dishes. Panko breadcrumbs for dipping chicken into. Cornflower for frying tofu. And endamame, those wonderful bright green soy beans that Posh Spice is said to survive on!

Introduction over, Fiona got down to business. She was cooking six dishes that evening. She showed us how to make perfect steamed short grain rice, how to poach a piece of salmon gently in sake and water, how to whip up a homemade teriyaki sauce in five minutes. Her husband, Gilmar, passed around delicious samples of each dish to sample.

While we were eating, Fiona told us some good news about the Japanese diet.

Japan has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world. Less than 4pc of the population are dangerously overweight compared to 22pc in Ireland and 32pc in the US. And it's not all down to genes. When Japanese people adopt a western diet, they pile on the pounds.

And there's more good news. Diet is one of the key factors in determining how long we live and can, some scientists say, add up to a decade to our lives. Japan has the largest population of centenarians in the world. The highest proportion lives in Okinawa where Gilmar's grandparents were born.

The islanders don't just live longer, they live longer and disease free. The islands have one of the world's lowest rates of stomach, brain and prostate cancer. It's generally agreed that diet determines around 30pc of how long we will live and the Okinawans eat pretty simply. Their diet contains hardly any red meat, plenty of fish, vegetables, tofu and seaweed.

But of course, the horse of habit refuses a nosebag full of good statistics, even amazing ones like these. It was the taste of the dishes Fiona cooked for us that night that really changed things for us.

Japanese food is light, fresh and clean. If we had sampled eight tapas plates, we would have been full to bursting. But when we left after our course, we felt satisfied but not stuffed.

This wasn't a coincidence. There's a saying in Okinawa: hara hachi bu. Roughly trans lated, it means 'eat until you are eight-tenths full'. And, as we experimented with our new Japanese ingredients, we were surprised at how easy this was.

The Japanese say that a meal without rice is not a meal at all and, within a few days I was converted. I started cooking a big pot of short grain rice every other day. I'd have it with stir fried greens for lunch and with salmon or tofu for dinner. I even ate it for breakfast.

Admittedly, I started out having my breakfast rice with honey, milk and nuts - making a kind of lazy woman's rice pudding. But lately, I've been having it with soy, grated carrot and avocado instead.

This, Fiona told me when I called her, is the

Japanese way. Sugary cereals, pastries and jams are not on the menu in the morning and breakfast is basically leftovers from dinner the night before.

When she first lived in Japan she was a bit taken aback ('I nearly collapsed' she says) when she was confronted with crispy salmon at 7am, but she quickly learned to love it. She found that a savoury breakfast set her up for the day and that the weight she'd put on when she lived in Dublin as a student melted away.

This was something I'd wanted to talk to her about. We didn't swap to a rice-based diet to lose weight but I was pretty pleased when the two stubborn kilos I hadn't managed to shift on the 5:2 diet cantered off and didn't return.

There are, Fiona says, three reasons why we will lose weight on a Japanese diet. The first is that Japanese rice has a low GI and releases energy slower, so we are less inclined to graze. The second is portion size. Shifting from a dinner plate to a bowl automatically shrinks the size of a meal and helping yourself from communal dishes means you eat only as much as you need. And the third reason is down to 'umami'.

Our taste buds are used to identifying four tastes - salt, sweet, sour and bitter. But this is the fifth taste. A pleasant savoury taste that isn't salty. 'Umami' in Japanese means 'yummy deliciousness'. (The commercial form is MSG, which is what makes your Chinese takeaway so moreish.)

'Umami' is everywhere in Japanese food. In the miso, soy and kombu that are part of most dishes. And it's this fifth taste, Fiona says, that makes us feel satisfied sooner and stops us craving sweet things after we have finished a main course.

And it's interesting that I can still work my way through starter, main course and desert when I'm eating out but I hardly every have a second helping when I'm eating at home.

But generally, I get by eating nuts and fruit between meals. And my shopping list has slimmed down so there are entire aisles of the supermarket I haven't wandered down for over a year.

Every few weeks, we fill up the freezer with chicken and salmon fillets and bags of frozen endamame beans. We stock up every week with eggs, tofu and leafy bok choi, plenty of vegetables, fiery chillis and gnarled roots of ginger. The cupboard always has a few extra packets of buckwheat noodles along with mirin, sake, low salt soy and dashi granules for stock. (Though Fiona says I need to start making my own by steeping shitake mushrooms and kombu seaweed). We eat so much rice now that we buy it in massive 10kg bags from Tony's, the Asian store on the main street in Bray.

I'll be honest, my horse of habit still likes an occasional graze, especially if Ginger Nuts are involved. And, if the sun comes out, it will gallop off in the direction of the nearest Magnum. But I know how to rein it in now. Habits, like horses, can be broken!

For details of Fiona Uyema visit Her book, Japanese Food Made Easy, is published by Mercier Press in mid-September. Ella Griffin's latest book, 'The Flower Arrangement' is published by Hachette author. Her third novel, The Flower Arrangement, published by Orion, is out now.

Health & Living

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life