FUKUOKA — Is it possible to re-create the clean, almost-vegetarian Japanese cuisine of the past?
|Yasuko Takahta at her cooking school and restaurant, Yogen, in Orio.|
That’s been Yasuko Takahata’s mission for the last 20 years, through her cooking lessons, a hectic schedule of nutrition lectures and the nine books she has penned. But Takahata, who has a degree in food science from Beppu University, did not begin her career teaching macrobiotic Japanese cooking.
“For 10 years I hammered in the principles of Western cooking using eggs, meat and milk in my classes, even though the locals complained they couldn’t afford such ingredients,” says Takahata of her early years as a nutritionist in Orio, a small agricultural and fishing town outside Kitakyushu in northern Fukuoka Prefecture.
Then, she read a book by Dr. Keiichi Morishita on the healing powers of natural foods to battle even illnesses such as cancer.
“It turned my position on health upside down,” says Takahata. “I began reconsidering the traditional Japanese diet of grains, seaweed, vegetables and fish, and realized how healthy it really was.”
By that time, though, the public was thoroughly convinced of the merits of a Westernized diet, and Takahata describes ruefully the years it took to win students back. Finally in 1991 she opened her first restaurant, Yogen, in Orio as a vehicle for showing how delicious macrobiotic Japanese cooking really was.
|An o-hagi dumpling of anko bean paste sweetened with brown sugar and rolled in sticky black rice, served with tanpopo (dandelion) tea.|
Two restaurants and health-food shops now headline Takahata’s business. The Fukuoka branch of Yogen opened just last July in bustling, downtown Tenjin. After locating the inconspicuous street entrance, visitors head up a flight of stairs to be welcomed at the door by polite, young staff in cooking garb. Yogen’s sunny, tatami-mat dining area is fronted by a shop selling health-food products — you’re reminded at the outset that this will be an educational experience just as much as a dining one.
The lunch and evening courses at Yogen are elaborately arranged, like sekiquets — to dispel the image of health food as “rabbit food.” Takahata is not opposed to using fish or meat in small quantities. But the menu at Yogen, codesigned with head chef Toru Haishi, is entirely vegetarian, to teach customers about the depth of flavor that can be created without using meat.
|The “Yugen-zen” set lunch (2,500 yen) features organically grown, seasonal vegetables, brown rice, pickles, miso and several other dishes.|
On the “Yogen-zen” full-course lunch menu recently was a feast of dishes made with late-summer vegetables, presented in a two-tiered bako with several side dishes and a dessert. The seasonal menu changes each month, in consultation with the restaurant’s organic produce suppliers. No oils, animal proteins, refined flours or white sugar are used on Yogen’s menu. Instead, memorable flavors are created by combining ingredients in unusual ways.
For example: One side dish of eggplant flavored with apple vinegar and toasted sesame seeds had a tart sweetness, yet maintained the creamy texture of eggplant. A serving of supple string beans, flavored in shiitake broth, was complemented with firm pine nuts. One side dish of flavorful gourd was offset by seaweed and a protein-rich grain sauce. A mound of brown rice was mixed with sweet summer corn and green soybeans, garnished with toasted sesame and tart boshim.
Wherever possible, Yogen uses provincial dishes special to northern Kyushu, such as the ubiquitous go-jirumplings in miso soup). Homemade azukekles (vegetables pickled in fermented rice bran) are a specialty of northern Oita and Fukuoka prefectures, including Takahata’s hometown of Beppu, and accompany each meal. Accents such as a tiny slice of locally made eshi also added, a wonderfully unusual condiment made of miso and walnuts pickled inside u citrons.
A flick through Takahata’s books reveals detailed nutritional information and simple, colorful recipes. She is adamant about the medicinal benefits of many Japanese foods, whose healing heritage was in turn transmitted from China long ago.
For example, soybeans contain flavonoids, a valuable substance that many Western women now take in medicinal form to stabilize female hormones. Leaf and root vegetables often used in Japanese cooking such as ginger, spinach and lotus root can be eaten to soothe allergies, including asthma and eczema.
At the Orio branch of Yogen, a mix of regular customers and students flock up the stairs daily for cooking classes, or to lunch at the sunny restaurant. Most heard of Yogen through word-of-mouth, and cite its potential to correct problems from allergies to overweight as piquing their interest.
One housewife says, “When I first married, it was trendier to cook hamburgers, croquettes and cakes than traditional Japanese food. But when my daughter grew up with chronic skin problems, I began thinking that our diet could be at fault.”
The Japanese diet is coming under increasing scrutiny as to how healthy it really is nowadays. “In a report compiled by a BBC journalist about seven years ago, Japanese food was voted the most healthy cuisine in the world,” says Takahata. “But the report was shortly afterward disputed by a Canadian TV documentary, which examined the sharp rise of diet-related illness in Japan. Look at what people eat — more grease; more sweets; more meat, eggs and milk. No wonder heart disease, allergies and obesity are on the rise.
“Consumers have become too fussy, demanding more refined and luxurious foods,” she continues. “What I want to do is take our diet back to the basics.”
With a mixture of modern science and old-fashioned common sense, Takahata may prove yet that Japanese cooking is, perhaps, the healthiest cuisine in the world after all.