Anyone who has spent a summer in Japan will likely be well- acquainted with natsubate, or “summer fatigue” — a general state of lethargy and tiredness, lack of concentration, sleeplessness and even mild depression.
Dealing with the relentless heat and humidity, which only lets up slightly in the evenings, is enough to get anyone down. Air conditioning helps, but as it often blasts out unpleasantly over-chilly air in many public spaces, it sometimes ends up making you feel worse.
Japanese people have come up with all kinds of ways of bringing relief to the dog days of summer, some of which go back to the times before air conditioning and electric fans. There are the obvious ones, such as drinking iced mugicha (roasted barley tea) and cold beer or snacking on kakigori (shaved ice with syrup) and slurping up cold soba or somen noodles. But if not done carefully, subsisting on cold food and drink can actually end up leaving you malnourished and even more fatigued.
It’s just as important, in these hot months, to eat not only foods that help cool the body, but also those that can help combat natsubate. In Japan, such foods include unagi (eel) and dojo (loach) — two types of fish that have high levels of omega-A oils, which many nutritionists believe can improve physical stamina.
Even before we knew of omega-A oils, feasting on eel was a traditional Japanese summer ritual. Doyo no ushi no hi (which translates as “Midsummer day of the ox”), the day that marks the height of summer in Japan (July 26 this year), is also known as Unagi no hi, Eel day, because eating unadon (grilled eel with a sweet-savory sauce on a bed of rice) on that day was first documented during the Edo Period (1603-1867).
Though eel and loach are eaten today because of their health benefits, during the Edo Period, the black color of their skins was also believed to ward off bad luck. Since Doyo no ushi no hi, was also considered to be a particularly accident-prone day, other dark natsubate foods, such as black beans and eggplant, are eaten on this day, too.
Although my grandmother never believed in the supernatural power of black food, she did insist that we practice certain habits to keep ourselves healthy in the summer. Some of her rules, such as making us eat at least one of her homemade salty umeboshi (pickled plum) every day, were probably more the stuff of old wive’s tales than actually beneficial. But there were also plenty of good ideas based on plain common sense.
Here are some of them. * Eat well-balanced meals, including vegetables, beans, fish and meat. My grandmother believed in feeding her grandchildren some kind of meat every day. * Eat a lot of “cooling” fare. Cooling vegetables and fruit are high in water content, and most are in season during the summer. They include cucumbers, eggplant, bitter melon, winter melon, tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash, watermelon and peaches. * Have at least one hot meal a day. Hot tea and miso soup may make you sweat, but you’ll feel a lot better for it. * Lemon and vinegar help increase the appetite when it’s very hot. Besides salads, eat things like sunomono (wakame seaweed, cucumber and other things in a vinegar sauce) and aji no nanbanzuke (deep fried and vinegar- marinated baby horse-mackerel). * Ginger and spicy foods will get your circulation going, so use them in cooking at least some of the time. An easy way to add fresh ginger to your meals is to use it grated or finely chopped as a garnish on cold noodles, grilled and chilled eggplant or hiyayakko, the cold tofu dish that’s ubiquitous in the summer.
Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook,” (Kodansha International), available from September in Japan and from January in the United States. She writes about bento lunches on justbento.com and Japanese cooking and more on justhungry.com.