Japanese diet is based on the Five Elements Philosophy stating that each of five elements – earth, water, fire, wood, and metal – must be in proper relation to every other element in order for the human beings to maintain their optimal mental and physical health. Each element is tied to a colour, taste and cooking technique:
- earth with sweet, orange and raw
- water with black, salty and steaming
- fire with red, bitter and grilling
- wood is associated with green, sour and simmering
- metal with white, hot and deep-frying
Japanese meals are perfectly balanced. Food should not only satisfy hunger, but also should be enjoyed, entertained and nourished with all five senses:
Taste and smell are obvious. Touch is also essential, not only for the texture of the food itself, but also for tableware. Sight is considered just as important as taste: a perfect meal can be ruined with a wrong shape or colour dish. Usually, chefs and home cooks opt for the pricier tableware option because a feather-light exclusive porcelain rice bowl that costs ten times as much as a similar-looking mass-made one makes dining much more enjoyable. Hearing also deserves attention: a quiet atmosphere is appreciated, and generally, the more expensive the restaurant, the quieter.
Since Buddhism arrived to Japan from China in the 6th century, the dominance of five colours – white, black, red, green and yellow – has been a tradition. The Japanese believe that these five colours have to be included in every meal. Indeed, this practice will help you serve balanced and healthy menu: white rice, black sesame seeds, red tomatoes, yellow omelet, and green beans boost the nutritional value of the dish.
Five basic tastes of food are distinguished by the Japanese:
What is “umami”? Umami can be translated as “pleasant savoury taste”, delicious. Discovered fairly recently (in the early part of the 20th century) by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, umami is now a worldwide phenomenon. The word came from “umai”- “delicious” and “mi” – “taste”. People taste umami through receptors specific to glutamate. Glutamate is widely present in savory foods, such as meat broths and fermented products, and commonly added to some foods in the form of monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Five Cooking Techniques
Usually, five different cooking techniques are applied to food preparation: meals may be raw, grilled, simmered, steamed, and deep-fried. Meals usually start with the most delicate in textures and flavours foods, such as a few slices of raw sashimi. Then soup or simmered vegetables are followed. Then food gets progressively more substantial; crispy tempura followed by grilled fish or meat. The meal then winds down with rice, soup and pickles. Dessert is sometimes served as well, and it is always very light. Of course, daily menu of a busy modern family is not that complicated. A typical weekday meal consists of salad, grilled fish, steamed, boiled or blanched vegetables, miso soup, rice and pickles.
The book “Good Food from a Japanese Temple” by Soei Yoneda – a 600-year tradition of simple vegetable cookery that provides the foundation for the Japanese attitude towards food by cultivating a spirit of gratitude. It contains five attitudes in the partaking of food:
- I reflect on the work that brings this food before me.
- I reflect on my imperfections, on whether I am deserving of this offering of food.
- Let me hold my mind free from preferences and greed.
- I take this food as an effective medicine to keep my body in good health.
- I accept this food so that I will fulfill my task of enlightenment.
There is one ruling that unique to Japan: dietary guidelines recommend consuming at least 30 different foods daily. Only Japan has gone so far as to quantify an actual number of foods (especially when it comes to vegetables and fruit) to aim for, because they are more likely to meet the nutrition needs. The average European or American eats only about 15 different foods per week, well below what the Japanese suggest.
Maybe that’s why Japanese people live longer and healthier than any other nation in the world, and Japanese women don’t get old and fat?