If you’re a superfood super-fan, you’re probably already familiar with healthy Japanese delicacies like matcha tea, tofu, miso and edamame. But with the distinction of having the most citizens living to the ripe age of over 100 and a vegetable-based traditional cuisine that’s world-renowned for being both tasty and wholesome, this island nation has much more to offer foodies. Read on to discover five Japanese superfoods whose health-giving benefits you’re missing out on — and then get yourself to the nearest Asian supermarket.
If slurping down some slimy, fermented beans sounds less than appetizing to you, let us assure you that you’re not alone — natto is an acquired taste even for the Japanese. But recent studies suggest that acquiring it may have countless health benefits. Natto is created by letting soybeans hang out with the bacteria Bacillus subtilis making it a probiotic food (like yogurt), which you already probably know is great for your gut. It’s a good source of vitamin K, vitamin C, calcium and iron (goodbye multivitamins). Nattokinase, an extract of the enzymes found in natto, is even used to treat cardiovascular disease. If you can stomach it, adding natto to your diet is an easy way to consume more plant-based protein. Natto is sold in single-serving Styrofoam packs at Asian grocery stores, and can be eaten alone with a little soy sauce or on top of rice. One of those “love it or hate it” foods, those who love it say the flavor and aroma is like a well-aged cheese — and those who hate it liken it to smelly socks.
Looking for a cute overload in addition to a new superfood? Spend a few minutes watching YouTube videos of Japanese babies trying umeboshi for the first time. These traditional pickles are made by curing unripe Japanese plums (ume) in salt and the herb shiso for a few months, then letting them dry in the sun. The result is extremely sour, salty and, according to holistic health enthusiasts, may also be extremely good for you. An essential part of a macrobiotic diet, umeboshi have been used as a folk remedy for everything from digestion to detoxing the liver — even curing hangovers — for centuries, and were given to samurai on the battlefield to fight fatigue. Though the medical world has yet to fully investigate the health benefits of umeboshi — and the high salt content may be a no-no for those watching their sodium intake — the eye-watering snack is so popular in Japan that it’s taken on the equivalent status of the American “apple a day” ethos.
Here’s a superfood that will satisfy both the gluten-free and peanut-allergic camps: Kinako is made from ground, roasted yellow soybeans, so it contains all the health benefits of soy, but can be used in novel ways. Try the protein and vitamin-packed powder in paleo baking as a flour substitute that’s also low in carbs. Kinako’s nutty flavor will please peanut butter lovers who don’t want all the calories, or those who are sensitive to nuts. Traditionally used as a topping on Japanese sweets, you can even dust desserts with kinako as a healthy alternative to powdered sugar. Think of it as a protein powder without any freaky ingredients — stir it into green smoothies, sprinkle it on yogurt or mix it with hot milk/soy milk for a satisfying drink.
This holiday season, whip up a pumpkin pie with kabocha instead. The Japanese squash is superior to more familiar winter vegetables like butternut or pumpkin with fewer calories and carbs, but has a super-sweet flavor and velvety texture. Like other bright orange veggies, kabocha is loaded with beta-carotene for beautiful hair and skin, and also packs in iron, fiber and antioxidants. Since the dark green skin is edible, you’ll save yourself the struggle with a knife that other squashes require. Kabocha is becoming a more common sight at farmers markets across the U.S. Toss roasted kabocha chunks into savory winter soups and stews, or bake up a batch of healthy kabocha muffins with cinnamon-like spices.
Health guru Dr. Weil recommends eating “unlimited amounts” of cooked Asian mushrooms every day. A good place to start is with maitake, a mushroom native to Japan that’s known in the U.S. as the “hen of the woods.” In fact, in Japan it’s sometimes called the “dancing mushroom” after a legend in which a group of Buddhist nuns and woodcutters come across maitake growing on a mountain trail and dance for joy at the delicious discovery. If the fact that this fungus is currently being studied for its anti-cancer, blood sugar-lowering and immune-boosting properties doesn’t make your mouth water, its meaty flavor will. Saute maitake and add it to stir-fries, make a maitake risotto or chop some into your favorite mushroom burger recipe.