Octopus skewers, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.
Food – ingredients, preparation, presentation – is something I think about far more than the average person. As I’ve mentioned, at home we almost never eat out, both because I love to cook and because I’m often testing recipes or preparing for a class, so I tend to have an excess of food on hand at any given moment. Food obviously plays a huge role in travel, too, and for me that’s both positive and negative. I love tasting unfamiliar ingredients and trying to appreciate a place through its food culture, but the reality is that more often than not restaurant food is disappointing and overpriced – especially when you’re traveling in heavily touristed areas. I know how much I’m overpaying for it and I hate that feeling of being cheated – paying $75 or more for a “nice” meal, only to leave with a bitter taste. It’s tough, though, especially in a country like Japan where everyday communication is delicate at best and a mess of unforeseen land mines at worst, to know where the locals eat. My answer to that, invariably, is “at home.”
Prepared food counter, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.
Other people travel and visit art museums and temples and things. I travel and visit minimarkets and grocery stores, because I think few places tell a country’s story better than where the locals shop for food. I was looking forward to Japan for many reasons, but the food was high on the list. We have a superficial impression of Japanese food in the U.S. – primarily sushi, of course, then perhaps tempura or soba or various tofu dishes. I’m interested not in what people eat when they go out to celebrate a special occasion (do we all eat at The Capital Grille every night? I think not), but what they grab from the store at 5:30 on a Tuesday night after a long day at work.
Soba noodles with shrimp tempura, Arashiyama.
And I’ll admit – I’ve been really surprised by Japanese food culture, at least what little I’ve seen of it. First and foremost, sugary drinks take a lot of rightful blame as a major source of excess calories in the American diet; we’re now seeing “soda taxes” and other measures designed to curb consumption and hopefully reduce our obesity and diabetes rates. But Japan, which I think many people perceive as one of the healthiest countries in the world (see The Blue Zones) is absolutely covered with drink vending machines. They are everywhere. There are apparently more than 5.5 million machines in this tiny country, while the U.S. has just under 7 million for nearly three times the population and a lot more landmass. While the machines do contain bottled water, they also contain sugared coffee drinks (cold and hot – and that is a miracle in the middle of this damp, frigid winter), sports drinks (the awkwardly-named Pocari Sweat is my favorite), and plenty of other sugary beverages. Clearly, the machines are worth the real estate – so why aren’t the Japanese plunging into a sugar-related health crisis like we are?
Fried snacks, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.
I’ve also been surprised at the amount of refined grains, but that may be because I’m so focused on teaching whole grains at home. Obviously plain white rice is a staple served with every meal; we’re currently on a farm stay and the rice steamer is kept filled with fresh, hot rice for eating at any time of day. But the buns, pastries and breads are all soft, white and sweet – the bread available for our morning toast here is like that super-cheap, super-thick “Texas Toast” we used for French toast as kids. I watched the nine-year-old son eat four pieces slathered with fake butter and jam for his breakfast this morning, and he’s thin as a whippet. So again, I’m observing very high consumption of refined grains – which the body essentially converts to sugar – and yet not observing the expected results.
One of N’s recent lunches, and the only time yet I’ve seen raw vegetables such as lettuce and tomato.
Meals for us have primarily been inexpensive, filling and warming – plenty of ramen, of course, plus other noodle soup variations, but also curry rice and simple “lunch sets,” which usually include miso soup, various pickles and a main such as chicken and rice (photo above). These too have surprised me with the overall lack of vegetables. While there might be a few small dishes of pickled or fermented vegetables, we’ve only once had any served raw – a fresh carrot and daikon salad here at the farm, with a delicious creamy, tangy dressing. There are never any vegetables in the soups or with the meat and rice, certainly nothing like what we’d think of as traditional stir-fry. That said, the Japanese tend to cook more seasonally than we do, and I suspect we’d see a greater variety of raw vegetables during warmer months than in the middle of bleakest winter.
Pickled vegetable selection, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.
In stores, it’s package after package after package. From a thousand varieties of crunchy salty snacks to pre-made sandwiches to “Hot Pockets” to sushi and sashimi, I’ve noticed very little in the way of fresh ingredients designed for preparing meals at home. Fresh fruits and vegetables are almost nowhere to be seen and crazily expensive when found; I bought an apple in downtown Kyoto – one apple – for about $2.50. We’ve walked by a couple of small fruit and veg stands, but literally nothing that would rival your most basic American grocery store produce department with its stunning array of gloriously arranged, perfectly shiny, identically sized out-of-season fruits and vegetables. And yet the farm we’re currently staying on has acres of fruit trees and thousands of apples in cold storage right now, so where are they all going?
The oddest dessert I’ve ever eaten…jellied fruit and red beans with clear gelatinous cubes underneath. Algae? Gelatin? Space-age packing material? Also it came with what I thought was a sauce and may have actually been hand sanitizer. Not dead yet.
So after nearly two weeks of eating and travelling in Japan, I’m left with a mess of contradictions. The diet appears, at least on the surface, to be as unhealthy as ours in the U.S. And yet the people here, at least from my extremely limited research, don’t seem to be plagued by the same health crises. What can we learn from this?
(P.S. Please know that these observations are only based on a few days here in Japan and are in no way intended to represent some sort of serious large-scale sociological study. If anyone has spent time in Japan and has additional insight to share about the food culture, I’d love to hear it!)