The phenomenon known as natsubate (summer fatigue) in Japanese is not to be taken lightly, especially when the heat and humidity is as brutal as it’s been this summer. Natsubate, the fatigue and lethargy you feel during the summer months, can seriously affect your energy levels and even make you feel sick.
The usual advice about drinking plenty of liquids and to protect yourself from the sun as much as possible both apply. But there are also things you can eat that may help combat the effects of natsubate, too.
Thiamine (vitamin B1) is said to be especially effective in combating natsubate, and one food that’s rich in thiamine is pork. Severe thiamine deficiency can cause an illness called beriberi, which was so prevalent in the Edo Period (1603-1868) that it was commonly called the “Edo disease.” This was largely due to a meatless diet, coupled with the firm belief that plain white rice made for a complete meal.
There were around 20,000 annual beriberi deaths well into the 20th century, but it has since been largely eradicated. Not coincidentally, pork has been the most popular meat in Japan since World War II.
Buta no shōgayaki (ginger pork) is a very quick and easy dish to make, especially if you have prepared the marinade in advance. Ginger, which goes great with pork, is helpful for another summer problem: air conditioning that’s too cold. Ginger helps to warm the body and encourage perspiration. It’s also said to improve blood circulation.
Cooking itself can be a problem in summer. You really don’t want to be standing in front of a hot stove for too long. So for the second recipe, refrigerator pickled vegetables, I’ve utilized the microwave, which doesn’t heat up your kitchen. It’s used to cook the pickling base, as well as to briefly cook some of the vegetables.
Vinegar also helps to combat natsubate, since the sourness may help rouse lagging appetites and make food taste more refreshing. The pickling base has lots of umami and a little sweetness, but is otherwise fairly neutral, so you can vary the taste of the vegetables by adding a squeeze of citrus, or some toasted, ground sesame seeds. A few drops of sesame oil or rāyu chili oil work well, too.
One more tip to reduce your time in the kitchen is to use premade sauces and marinades. The marinade for the ginger pork and the pickling base for the vegetables can be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator, to use as needed. Both items work well in bento boxes.
Ginger pork with summer vegetable pickles
For the pork (serves 2):
• 100 milliliters soy sauce
• 100 milliliters sake
• 100 milliliters mirin (rice liquor)
• 200 grams thinly sliced pork
• 1 tablespoon ginger, freshly grated
• 1 tablespoon ginger, peeled and thinly shredded
• Oil for cooking
For the pickles (several servings):
• 200 milliliters rice vinegar
• 3 tablespoons mirin (or 2 tablespoons sugar)
• 400 milliliters water
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1½ centimeters of unpeeled ginger, sliced
• 4 to 5 small red chili peppers
• 1 tablespoon light (usukuchi) soy sauce
• 10-by-3 centimeter piece konbu seaweed
• Chopped vegetables of your choice
• Toasted, ground sesame seeds (optional)
Make the marinade by combining the soy sauce, sake and mirin. Store in a tightly sealed jar for up to a month in the refrigerator.
Make the vegetable pickling liquid by combining the vinegar, mirin, water, salt, ginger and chili peppers in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for 4 to 5 minutes. Add the soy sauce and konbu seaweed. Store in a tightly sealed glass or ceramic container for up to a month.
To make the pickles: Put the chopped vegetables in a microwave-safe bowl. Strain enough of the pickling liquid into the bowl to cover the vegetables. Microwave on high for 4 minutes then cool and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, up to a week — this is not a long-keeping pickle. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, if desired, to serve.
To make the ginger pork: Make small cuts all around the perimeter of the pork slices to prevent the meat from shrinking when it’s cooked. Put the pork in a plastic bag and add enough of the marinade to cover it, plus the grated ginger. Leave for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat up vegetable oil in a frying pan over high heat. Pat the pork dry with paper towels and quickly saute on both sides for a minute. Add the shredded ginger and marinade and cook until the sauce is reduced and almost sticky, turning the pork slices until fully coated. Serve hot or cold.
Serve this meal with sprouted brown rice for an extra vitamin B kick.