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What I've Learned About Cooking While Living in Japan

What I've Learned About Cooking While Living in Japan

Amanda Marshall

In between the Pacific Ocean and East China Sea lies a beautiful subtropical island hailed for having one of the longest living groups of people in the world: That island is Okinawa, Japan.

Here, one will find villages nestled amongst fields of sugar cane, rows of vegetables that grow year-round, strong local communities, and a brilliant turquoise sea. The Japanese government has documented more than 50 Okinawans over the age of 100, which is one of the largest populations of centenarians in one location in the entire world.

What is the secret behind Okinawans' longevity? Living on this island, it is clear that diet, lifestyle, environment, and family life are the major factors, though many locals will also tell you it is the will of God. Okinawans seasonally farm what they grow on land and what they catch in the sea. Their diet is primarily based off of fresh vegetables, fish, Japanese rice, seaweed, pork and tofu.

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The traditional diet of Okinawans "shows us that a primarily plant-based, whole foods diet high in complex carbohydrates and low in sugar, saturated fats, and refined grains may be the best way to protect our long-term health," says clinical nutritionist Nicole Larizza.

Larizza adds that the diet is "exceptionally nutrient-dense," offering "an abundance of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients without an abundance of calories, and in doing so, it supports our ability to maintain a healthy weight and to avoid cardiovascular and other chronic diseases that are common in our Western society. "

White rice often has an unhealthy connotation in the States, but not so in Japan. It is traditionally served warm in a small bowl at every meal. “White rice is so nutritious in Japan. It’s not made the same way in America. It’s natural, not processed, and keeps you fuller longer than bread, which we don’t eat,” says Saya Nakamura, a native and lifetime resident of Okinawa.

Traditional Okinawan meals are served in an array of very small bowls and plates. One example of a traditional breakfast includes nato (sticky beans) served with white rice, miso soup, seaweed and fish. Traditionally, lunch is often a bowl of soba or udon noodles in broth with vegetables and a small piece of local pork.

A traditional dinner is often served on small plates or as a champaru (a stir-fried mixture) of pork, white rice, vegetables, seaweed, pickled vegetables, tofu and egg, and in the summer, goya — known in English as “bitter melon” — though other produce can also be incorporated.

In America, it is common for many to go to the grocery one to two times per week, purchasing larger amounts of food at a time. In Okinawa, where meals incorporate little processed food, it is typical to shop at local vegetable, fish and meat markets every day or every other day, purchasing smaller amounts during each trip. “Taking time each day to buy fresh, local food and cook it in a healthful way is a big part of Okinawan life,” says Nakamura.

So is it time to start eating like the Japanese? Larizza points out that as Okinawans have been eating this way over their entire lifetime, it may not have quite the same effect for Americans looking to make the change.

"It’s not particularly reasonable for us to adopt this way of eating later in life, say in our 30s or 40s or 50s, and expect to reap the same health benefits or longevity," Larizza explains.  "That said, it’s never too late to change our diet and include more fresh vegetables, whole grains and plant-based proteins in order to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers."

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Outdoor activity also plays a huge role in Okinawan daily life. In the small village of Yomitan on the Western coast of the narrow island, most of the farmers are 60 years old and above. Those in their nineties still work their small plots of land, ride bikes to and from the fields, or are simply out walking in the morning and evening. “Retirement homes now exist on the island, but they are rare. It is far more common to have grandparents living with their children and children’s children. Most households have three to four generations living under one roof,” explains Nakamura.

“Traditional Okinawan life — that primarily lives on in our older generations — is simple. It revolves around family, fresh food, working hard, and enjoying our beautiful environment.”

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