Review – Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat

Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat: Secrets of My Mother’s Tokyo Kitchen by Naomi Moriyama and William Doyle

There’s an old phrase about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence. For the first time ever, North Americans are applying that philosophy to eating and dieting. After all, we figure, how can those French ladies eat all that wine and cheese and still stay so svelte and stylish? It only stands to reason that eventually our gaze would focus on Japan. Long considered one of the healthiest societies on the planet (Japanese people, particularly women, have the longest life expectancy of any culture, and also have the longest quality of life – that is, they are far less likely to spend their final years in a nursing home or suffering from severe illness), it stands to reason that the Japanese would have some secrets to share that could help us doughy North Americans get slim and healthy, too.

However, like every diet plan out there, there’s a catch, and this one, like the “French Women” diet that is currently all the rage, involves an overall change of philosophy and lifestyle that many North Americans may not be willing to make.

It’s no surprise that many cultures equate good food with a mother’s love. Until the past couple of decades, a mother’s role in every culture has been to take care of the children and prepare the food for the family. In Japan, that role is taken one step further, and Moriyama relates a story about a letter sent home from school when she was a child, indicating that all mothers were expected to provide their children with a “love-packed lunchbox” every day. No pressure, ladies, no pressure.

The love-packed lunchbox is an important point within the book, however, because it demonstrates the difference in the way our respective cultures think about food. In Japan, home-cooked food must be of the freshest quality possible; here, we think nothing of sending kids to school with pre-packaged junk or money to buy cafeteria fries. I won’t wade into any kind of debate about whether that means we, as a society, love our kids any less, but it’s certainly food for thought.

It’s part of the overall philosophical difference towards food that might make the Japanese diet hard for North Americans to adhere to. The way Moriyama’s mother cooks requires a lot of planning, and a lot of work. The food is simple, fresh Japanese fare, but fresh and simple often take far more effort than “frozen from a box”. For anyone interested in Japanese cuisine who also has the time to plan, shop, and prepare, it’s a beautiful manner of cooking and eating that is intensely healthy and spiritually fulfilling.

It might also seem, to those of us not faced with choices of food so fresh it’s not only date-stamped but time-stamped, somewhat austere. If you’re used to heavy dishes full of meat and cheese and pasta, this simple diet based on fish, soy, rice, vegetables and fruit might make you feel somewhat deprived. The smaller portions might take some getting used to as well. In Japanese cuisine, everything must be beautiful not only to the mouth, but to the eye, and a great deal of effort is put into presentation. The diet also depends predominantly on rice instead of heavier carbs, which is far healthier, but may take some getting used to.

The one area of the book that impressed me the most, and which I plan on putting into use in my own diet, is what Moriyama calls “The Japanese Power Breakfast”. Like everywhere else, breakfast in Japan is the most important, and often the biggest, meal of the day. Instead of pancakes, high-fat muffins, gallons of coffee and greasy fry-ups, the Japanese Power Breakfast consists of miso soup, often with scallions and bits of tofu, rice (of course), egg and/or fish, some vegetables, green tea and fruit. Check it out – healthy carbs and fibre from the rice (especially if you use brown rice); a small bit of low-fat protein from the tofu, egg and fish; vegetables for fibre and vitamins; anti-oxidants and the tiniest bit of caffeine in the green tea; and carbs, fibre and natural sugars from the fruit. For a person with reasonable cholesterol levels and no worries about sodium, it’s just about the perfect meal!

Moriyama goes on in further chapters to explain how to set up your own Tokyo kitchen and this is where things get difficult for the average Westerner. Most kitchens, even those without a wok or a rice steamer, can cook a reasonable Japanese meal with western cooking equipment, but the ingredients start to become a problem. Folks in larger cities should have no problem tracking down bonito flakes, mirin and various kinds of sea vegetables, but even here in multi-cultural Toronto, I can have a hard time finding things like fresh daikon or fresh shiso leaves. The internet has made the option of mail-order far more accessible for hard-to-find ingredients, but many people are cautious when cooking food from other cultures, and might not be willing to pay big bucks to have soba noodles shipped to their door when they don’t know how to cook them or even whether they’re going to like them.

I would have liked to seen more recipes in the book, as well. There are a few, scattered throughout the chapters, but Moriyama spends a great deal more time explaining each component of the meal, and the philosophy behind Japanese cooking itself, than she does in actually providing her readers with things to cook. For me, the book is more of an introduction into the world of Japanese cuisine – it’s a fantastic explanation of all the components – but it’s really just a starting point, and wouldn’t be sufficient as your only Japanese cookbook.

The diet itself is not really a secret, either – just basic common sense; eat smaller quantities of fresher, healthier food; get exercise throughout the day by walking; and fulfill the soul as well as the body with beautifully prepared meals. It’s a simple philosophy. Whether the promise of better health and a longer life is enough of a temptation to get North Americans to put down the frozen pizzas, ice cream and hamburgers for rice and fish and fresh vegetables is the real question. Moriyama’s mother’s secrets are only useful if her readers are willing to get up off the couch and put the effort into cooking healthy meals. Her diet might still be a bit too intimidating for many of us to try.