For Momoyo Taniguchi, a Japanese cooking instructor of Chinese herbal medicine dishes, known as yakuzen, the crowning moment of her career was winning a respected international cookbook competition for health and nutrition.
Nominated for her book, “Beauty Recipes of Yakuzen — Chinese Herbal Medicine Dishes,” Taniguchi took one of the top honors at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, which took place last month in Yantai, China.
“I was so surprised and I couldn’t believe my ears at first,” says Taniguchi, a mother of two in her 40s, at her home in Tokyo after returning from her trip to China. “I was emotionally overwhelmed and shed tears (of joy) during my acceptance speech,” she says of the award, considered the Oscars of gastronomic literature. Her book, published last year by Kodansha Co. in Japan, won the Grand Prix in the category of “health and nutrition for the public.”
“Now, my dream is to give lectures and hold cooking classes around the globe,” she says, adding that her goal is to let the world know about yakuzen and to help as many people as possible.
But the road to success was not always smooth.
Taniguchi suffered from various ailments that occasionally kept her awake at night. She visited hospitals to treat an irregular pulse and other health problems but her condition did not improve. Suffering from dizziness after having her second child, Taniguchi was determined to get healthy.
“Since I really love cooking and eating, I wanted to get involved with food,” she says. Taniguchi chose yakuzen among several health management methods because she wanted “something with few food restrictions, so I can continue for a long time.”
After considerable research, she quit her job at an advertising company to begin her study of Chinese herbal medicine and pursued a career in teaching yakuzen cooking. It was, she says, the best decision she ever made for her health and family.
“Ever since I started practicing the teaching of yakuzen, my heart condition has gotten a lot better. I don’t get tired easily anymore, and I rarely catch a cold or the flu,” she says. “Visibly, my skin condition has vastly improved and I receive a lot of compliments about it lately. The skin reflects your internal state in many cases, so I think I’m in better condition now.”
Rather than being defined by specific ingredients or cooking styles, yakuzen meals are prepared in accordance with traditional Chinese medicine. Adherence is given to the principle of yin and yang, the two opposite forces in the universe that complement each other, and the five elements — metal, water, wood, fire and earth — which reflect traditional Chinese philosophy.
“Yakuzen can be arranged as Japanese food, Italian food, of course Chinese food, or many other foods,” Taniguchi says.
Based on the yin and yang principle, five vital internal organs are linked with the five elements: liver to wood, heart to fire, spleen to earth, lungs to metal and kidneys to water. Meals are said to rebalance qi, blood and body fluids, which Taniguchi believes are essential to maintaining the delicate equilibrium of yin and yang in our body.
Ideally, yakuzen meals should be tailor-made for each individual because people have distinct health concerns, but in reality most of them can’t afford this luxury when preparing their meals at home.
Ginger, green onions, sesame (white and black), wood ear mushroom and white jelly fungus, dried shiitake mushroom, perilla, kelp, black beans, walnuts and wolfberries are the key ingredients Taniguchi identifies in her cookbook for their excellent health properties.
The ingredients, which are available in stores, can be used in a wide variety of dishes. Black sesame and black beans have an anti-aging effect, while green onions and ginger are a panacea for colds. Stocks can be made from dried shiitake mushrooms to boost the immune system.
Taniguchi says meals should vary from season to season, based on the geographical peculiarities of a region.
“Eating summer vegetables … will cool down your body temperature in the summertime,” she says. “Also, you can follow the example of people in cold areas in terms of what they eat during the winter.”
For her cooking classes, Taniguchi arranges a combination of dishes in the styles of various countries and regions.
“For example, we are making Taiwanese yakuzen this month, while we made Thai yakuzen last month, and Korean and Chinese yakuzen in some other months,” Taniguchi says, adding that yakuzen cooking styles are quite flexible.
“Wolfberries, also known as goji berries, have recently become popular among health conscious Hollywood celebrities,” she says. “I hope this kind of exposure of foods used in yakuzen by well-known figures will spread the allure of yakuzen cuisine around the world.”
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