Mon, Aug 15, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Traditional food on the rise

A healty, traditional diet is making a comeback in Japan, where many are living past the 100-year mark

DPA , TOKYO

A health-food restaurant in downtown Tokyo offers traditional fare.

PHOTO: EPA

The humid summer air is thick with the scent of fried food in Tokyo.

Several restaurants in Japan's capital offer traditional delicacies, ranging from unagidon or fried eel with rice to yakiniku or grilled meat -- popular recipes that are supposed to counteract the exhaustion that usually comes with summer.

Others prefer lighter fare such as soba, hiyashi-chuka or cold noodle dishes called somen or hiyayakko -- cold tofu with soy sauce, ginger and leeks.

Authentic Japanese food is making a comeback (some say it never left) in the land of the rising sun. Annual sales of food as summer gifts -- simple specialties that customers can order at post offices or through catalogues have been on the rise in recent years. Cookbooks are also gaining popularity, especially slick, modern volumes that showcase recipes using traditional ingredients. Nursery schools are already focusing on balanced diets.

Even the exemplary diet of Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa (1542-1616) has caught the media's attention. His favorite foods included rice with wheat along with a miso broth, dried sardines and plenty of vegetables.

A menu based on his diet, dubbed "The Long Life Meal," includes special herbs in sesame sauce, cooked radishes, soybeans, konnyaku or a jellied mass of arum, ocean carp, tubers and wheat noodles with pheasant meat.

Ieyasu Tokugawa was probably also blessed with long life because he made it a habit to rise early and go to bed early. He lived to be 70 years old in his day, but probably would have reached 100 today, when more than 20,000 Japanese citizens have hit the one-century mark.

The balanced, lean diet of the Japanese is often given as a reason for their longevity, much higher than anywhere else in the world.

Women average 85.6 years while men average 78.6 years.

Traditionally, all three meals consist of rice, miso soup and a variety of side dishes. The food is not only healthy and easy to digest, but a feast for the eyes.

Usually fresh and either raw or lightly cooked ingredients are served in many small bowls, providing material for innumerable television shows in which gourmets taste the culinary cornucopia with zeal.

But things changed under the influence of Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901), then one of Japan's greatest experts on the West. He was convinced that Japan's strength and health would improve only with wholesale acceptance of Western-style nutrition.

After the opening of Japan in the mid-19th century, he pushed energetically for regular consumption of beef. Although Fukuzawa's radical push for a complete change never happened, Western cuisine eventually become standard in Japan. Instead of rice balls or fresh vegetables, more and more Japanese now consume so many calories that health officials have begun to sound a national alarm sparking new interest in health.

Consequently, menus at company cafeterias now regularly offer rice that is only 30 percent shelled. Millet, a vital ingredient of Japanese dishes such as miso soup, tofu, wakame or seaweed leaves) and salmon in sweet-and-sour sauce has also made a return to those menus, along with umeboshi or dried, pickled plums.

Southern Okinawa, known especially for the long life spans of its residents, who eat particularly large quantities of vegetables, has gained a reputation as a stress-free place with a carefree lifestyle.

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