Healthy Japanese Cooking: Simple Recipes for a Long Life, The Shoku-Iku Way

November 14, 2015

 Much like the traditional Japanese Buddhist shojin ryori, Shoku Iku (“food education”) is a Japanese concept involving conscious eating: what we eat, how we prepare it, and how different foods are combined. Much like the traditional Japanese Buddhist shojin ryori, shoku iku is based on the power of five: each meal should have five colors (green/blue, red/orange, white, black/brown, yellow), tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salt, umami), senses, food groups and cooking methods (steam, simmer, broil, grill and fry, no-cook, sushi).

Makiko Sano’s new book “Healthy Japanese Cooking” (published in the UK as “Shoku Iku”) immediately caught my eye; having lived in Japan on multiple occasions, I have long been attracted to Japanese washoku (traditional cuisine) and shojin ryori (Buddhist vegan cuisine). Traditional Japanese meals are based on the freshest seasonal ingredients, engage all the senses, and if eaten properly and with mindfulness, should leave you satisfied but not stuffed (the Japanese concept of hara hachi bu, or eat until you are 80 percent full).

Beginning with the essential dashi (stock) and dressings (rosemary soy, sweet soy, sesame salad sprinkle, shabu shabu and others), there are very handy illustrations and step-by-step photos to instruct you on rolling sushi, julienning vegetables, etc. Dashi is the backbone of most Japanese soups / hot pots, and you'll find several variations here, including basic dashi (kelp + bonito flakes), vegetarian dashi (kelp and dried shiitake), Motoko's dashi (made with liquid from cooking brown rice; I had not seen this method in my other cookbooks!), and two soup stocks.

I found the chapter on steaming particularly helpful as I have not cooked fish via this method before, but you’ll find heavenly steamed sea bream, a posh cod dinner in 20 minutes, steamed chicken, stuffed veggies, pork dumplings, etc., most cooked in the microwave. However, a word of caution; these recipes were tested at 800 watts, and it would appear that American microwaves are more powerful in general (mine is 1.58 kW), so you may need to adjust cooking times.

Some of the steamed dishes are cooked on the stovetop; my new favorite discovery is the “Full Japanese” garden breakfast, full of leafy greens, tomatoes, mushrooms and eggs nestled into the greens. I also loved the vegan monk recipe for stuffed pumpkin and steamed sticky rice, which is full of carrots, shiitake, and mushrooms (you can leave out the chicken to make it vegan). And my favorite steamed custard chawanmushi also makes an appearance, as do perfect teatime snacks mochi, sweet potato treats, and fruit buns.

The fried chapter includes Japanese burgers and shrimp barbecue, but you’ll also find healthy low-fat vegetarian options like Japanese grilled vegetable “stir fry” (half grilled, half steamed), eggplant and shallot salad, “full of goodness” (with a liberal helping of my favorite Japanese vegetable, lotus root!), and chili tofu. The sushi chapter features an amazing brown shiitake and pumpkin sushi, temaki, sesame seed salmon sushi, brown rice tuna sushi with sweet-hot sauce, five senses super-tasty salmon sushi, and some new variations like wasabi cream cheese sushi with lamb, avocado and pear quinoa power sushi, and sushi canapes.

Ingredients are listed both in metric and US (volume). Beautiful full-color photos by Lisa Linder capture the aesthetic of Japanese cuisine, with beautiful tableware that offsets the featured dish perfectly.

The resulting dishes, all of which embrace the “shoku iku” philosophy, are light, nutritious, and provide plenty of variety of colors, flavors, and textures that are sure to brighten any meal. I found several new dishes that I plan on making frequently, including the egg and tofu dashi soup, rice noodles with mushroom broth, pan tai, iced tomatoes, brown shiitake and pumpkin sushi, and steamed sticky rice.

If you are new to Japanese cooking / flavors, then “Healthy Japanese Cooking” is the perfect introduction as it uses commonplace ingredients (you may have to order some of the more traditional ingredients like kombu and bonito flakes online), simple techniques, and is aligned much more closely with the traditional Japanese diet based on fish and vegetables than many Japanese cookbooks aimed at Western audiences.

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