5.0 out of 5 stars Food is Medicine
I tend to be highly skeptical about this kind of book, mainly because they usually present some sort of idealized fantasy of a health-conscious and simple Japan where everyone is deeply in tune with the rhythms of nature, whilst I know from many years of experience living in Japan that your average Japanese person is much more likely to sit down to a steaming pile of fried chicken, reconstituted ramen and a few cans of beer rather than ocean-harvested kombu and mountain vegetables gently simmered followed by a sweet cup of amazake. However I was pleasantly surprised when the authors stated up front that “Japanese people don’t eat this way”, and acknowledged that many of these foods will be more readily available in an American health food store than in a Japanese supermarket.
With that fresh start, I was able to enjoy “Japanese Foods that Heal” for what it is, a brilliant guide to eighteen traditional Japanese ingredients that are powerhouses of health, with medicinal properties that strengthen the human body and provide resources and defenses against all manner of illnesses. Each ingredient is considered in-depth, talking about the traditional harvesting/creation methods, the known medicinal properties of that ingredient, and the traditional healing powers associated with it. The authors are careful to state what is a proven effect of the food and what is only a “potential” effect. Some of the foods, such as miso and green tea, are quite familiar and well-known for their health value. Others, such as soy sauce and the sweetener mirin, were more of a surprise, as I had not thought of them as having any particular value other than as a flavoring agent. Some of the ingredients I had never heard of, such as seitan and mizu ame, which the author admits you would need to either make yourself or find at a specialized store.
While there are recipes for each ingredient included, “Japaneses Foods that Heal” cannot really be considered a cookbook. About five or six simple recipes with no photographs are all you get for each item, and the bulk of the text is educating you about the food itself. While the recipes are easy to make and delicious, I was more intrigued by the concept put forward of using these foods in regular recipes replacing items of little nutritional value, such as refined salt or white sugar, with more nutritious substitutes like mirin or the salty picked-plum umeboshi. Definitely something to give a try.
The only drawback to this book is that the authors reinforce the stereotype that eating healthy means eating expensive. When they talk about soy sauce, they are quick to distinguish between the mass-produced condiment available anywhere, and the healthy, hand-processed variety only made in few places and only available at specialty stores for quite a bit more than you would expect to pay. The cheap stuff, they say, isn’t worth your time. The same story is told for almost every food, with a lengthy description of its traditional, healthy processing method followed by a disclaimer saying how the majority is now chemically produced in factories, and you will have to search out and be prepared to pay for the good stuff.