How often do you really think carefully about what you’re putting in your mouth? When we’re hungry, most of us will eat anything – never mind the calories. And after the Easter weekend, you’re probably now nursing a sugar hangover.
But chef and author Makiko Sano says there’s another way, and it doesn’t involve a scary-sounding fad diet.
The Japanese approach to food, Shoku-iku, means “food education”, and was pioneered alongside macrobiotics in the late 1800s by military doctor Sagen Ishizuka, who believed the secret to health and healing was to strengthen the body from the inside.
In June 2005, concerned by the effects of Western fast food, families not eating together and schoolchildren skipping breakfast, the Japanese government passed the Basic Law of Shoku-Iku, making education about nutrition and food origins compulsory.
As a result – as chef Makiko Sano, author of Shoku-Iku! Japanese Conscious Eating For A Long And Healthy Life, explains – Japanese people never seem to be on diets and never skip meals to lose weight, as they are consciously monitoring their nutritional intake with every meal, every day.
“I don’t believe in diets,” says busy mum-of-four Sano. “I prefer to make sure I eat balanced meals.
“You shouldn’t avoid what you like to eat, but it’s important to think about what you have been eating throughout the day, and make sure you don’t eat lots of your favourite unhealthy food. Simple food can be delicious too.”
In her book, she acknowledges that it will take time to retrain yourself to be more mindful about food, and to ditch the “just-grab-something attitude”. But by choosing food based on its power to invigorate, she insists you’ll feel “better, lighter and in control” – and soon it’ll become a way of life.
According to Sano, who grew up in Tokyo before moving to London and opening sushi restaurant Suzu, the basic rules of Shoku-Iku include the Buddhist-inspired Power of Five to boost variety: eating foods from five groups (grains, vegetables, fruits, protein and dairy) that appeal to your five senses, that contain five tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salt and the savoury “umami”), and which aim to reflect five colours (green/blue, red/orange, white, black/brown, yellow).
Sano has seen first-hand the difference that being mindful of what we’re eating can make; it helped her son, Leon, who was diagnosed with autism aged three.
“He was very aggressive. I don’t want to say it, because he is my son, but he was like an animal when he was young. He just couldn’t understand the world we live in and I couldn’t take him out to the park or go shopping,” she says.
It was Sano’s own mother who encouraged her to think about Leon’s diet.
“She never takes medicine and believes food is connected with our bodies,” Sano says. “For example, I had severe eczema when I was young. My mother checked which foods I was allergic to and she made everything from scratch, and my eczema disappeared when I was six.”
“My mother insisted that something must be wrong with [Leon's] gut, so I searched and found out that autistic children might have problems with gluten and dairy products. So I decided to do a gluten and dairy-free diet. It was easy for me, as [Japanese people] don’t use dairy in our food and we eat [gluten-free] rice every day.”
The switch had a big impact on Leon.
“He is still autistic, but he is very caring and such a fun boy to be around,” says Sano. “He is in a special autistic school at the moment, but he’s doing very well. And I do believe that what he has been eating has helped him in many ways.”
Feeling inspired? Try these Shoku-iku-inspired recipes for yourself…
1. Full Japanese garden breakfast
“This is a quick, easy way of having eggs for breakfast. I always like to eat some greens at breakfast as well, as did all my family before me. This is a fusion of British and Japanese cooking methods and flavours – why not? I’m Japanese and I live in Britain – so I call it a ‘full Japanese’. Use a lidded saute pan,” Sano says.
Ingredients (serves 2):
1tsp rapeseed oil
1 garlic clove, grated
Large handful of kale, chopped into 1cm slices
Handful of baby spinach leaves
3 cherry tomatoes, quartered
3 shiitake mushrooms, finely sliced
3 regular mushrooms, finely sliced
Finely chopped chilli (optional)
For the Garden Soy sauce dressing:
1 apple, grated
1 carrot, grated
1 onion, grated
100ml soy sauce
100ml rice vinegar
80g honey or brown sugar
Heat the oil in a saute pan over a medium heat, add the garlic and stir until fragrant. Add the kale with any water from washing still clinging to its leaves, the spinach, tomatoes and mushrooms and cook until almost tender.
Hollow out four spaces and drop an egg into each. Put the lid on and cook over a low heat to steam for three to four minutes, depending on how you like your eggs. Transfer to plates and serve with Garden soy sauce dressing, sprinkled with chilli, if you want.
2. Avocado and pear quinoa power sushi
“I always wrap cling film around my sushi rolling mats before using, as this prevents the rice (or quinoa, in this case) from sticking at all,” she says.
Ingredients (serves 2-3):
3tbsp pureed or mashed mango (mashed with a fork)
1tsp white wine vinegar
1tsp lemon juice
Pinch of sea salt
1 medium pear
4-5 full sheets of dried nori seaweed
1 avocado, finely sliced
Place the quinoa into a sieve and rinse well under cold water. Tip the rinsed quinoa into a saucepan, add 400ml of water and cook over a medium heat. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for about 13 minutes until soft, stirring frequently. Drain well to remove any excess water.
Put the cooked quinoa in a bowl and let it cool to lukewarm for few minutes. Add the mango puree, vinegar, lemon juice and sea salt to the quinoa while still warm and mix well. Transfer to a tray, spreading the quinoa thinly, and allow it to cool completely.
Meanwhile, preheat the grill. Finely slice the pear and grill the slices for two or three minutes on each side.
Place a nori sheet on a sushi rolling mat, long side towards you and rough side up, shiny side down.
Spread one-quarter to one-fifth (depending on whether you are making four or five rolls) of the quinoa mix from the bottom to two-thirds of the way up the sheet. Place four slices of avocado and three slices of lightly grilled pear along the middle of the quinoa. Roll the nori tightly up to the end. Leave it to sit for two to three minutes to allow the seaweed to soften. Repeat to use up all the nori sheets, rice and filling. Cut each roll into six pieces, then serve.
3. Dancing prawns
“This is really rich in umami flavours and is very easy to make. The flavour of the prawns mixes beautifully with those of the sesame oil and leek,” Sano says.
Ingredients (serves 2-3):
1/2 leek, sliced into julienne
5 oyster mushrooms, sliced 1cm thick
250g large head-on prawns
1tsp sea salt
3-4 drops sesame oil
1tsp soy sauce
1 spring onion, sliced into julienne
Place the leek in a saucepan that has a lid. Lay the mushrooms on the bed of leek and the prawns on top of those. Add the sake, cover and cook over a high heat until the sake starts to steam and the prawns start to ‘dance’ (as my grandmother used to say) in the liquid, then reduce the heat to medium so the pot is just simmering and add the salt, sesame oil and soy sauce.
Cover again and continue to simmer for two or three minutes. Transfer to a serving plate and sprinkle with the spring onion.
Shoku-Iku! Japanese Conscious Eating For A Long And Healthy Life by Makiko Sano (photography Lisa Linder) is published by Quadrille, priced £14.99. Available now.