Traditions are taken very seriously in Japan, and one of the most noticeable examples is Japanese food. Certain foods and seasonings are always paired together, and while it may be tempting to dismiss this as just another example of the cultural homogeneity of an island nation, in several cases there are legitimate health benefits to these standard combinations.
Following are 10 culinary collaborations that won’t just fill you up and satisfy your taste buds, but leave you a little healthier, too.
Sushi and wasabi
Let’s start with one of the most iconic teams in Japanese cuisine, sushi and the fiery paste that is wasabi.
Ordinarily, diners get a double punch of wasabi with each piece of sushi, as a dab of the condiment is placed in the rice, which is then dipped into a mixture of soy sauce blended with yet another dollop of wasabi. Although purists can’t imagine eating raw fish without it, some more casual sushi fans can’t handle the heat, and ask the chef to make their orders sabi nuki, or without wasabi.
But you’re actually missing out on a number of benefits if you’re passing on the wasabi, which helps to soften the smell of the fish, as well as drawing out more of its flavor. More importantly, wasabi is effective in suppressing microbes and bacteria that can cause food poisoning. So if you’re worried about eating your food raw, bear with the spiciness of the wasabi. It’s got a job to do.
Miso soup and seaweed
Almost as ubiquitous as sushi and wasabi is the combination of miso soup with seaweed. Given its flimsy texture and near total lack of flavor, you’d be forgiven for assuming the seaweed isn’t there for anything other than aesthetic purposes.
It turns out, though, that seaweed helps compensate for one of the only health drawbacks to miso soup: its high sodium content. Nutrients in seaweed help to reduce both blood pressure and sodium levels in the body.
Rice balls and laver
While we’re on the subject of plants from the ocean, what about the type of seaweed called laver that’s used to wrap onigiri, or rice balls?
At first this seems like something done strictly for the sake of convenience. You eat onigiri with your hands (nigiru is the Japanese word for “grab”), so if you don’t want to get rice all over them, you need some kind of covering. Onigiri predate plastic though, and the rice would stick to paper, depriving you of a few morsels when you unwrapped one. A thin strip of dried laver just seems like a natural, edible solution.
While that’s true, the laver also provides a huge nutritional benefit. Rice balls, by their nature, are almost entirely carbohydrates. In order to convert those carbs into energy, the body needs vitamin B, which laver is packed with. Conveniently, the quantity of vitamins in the B group necessary for one onigiri’s worth of carbohydrates is almost exactly equal to that contained in the amount of laver it takes to wrap one.
Raw tuna and yam
Seafood makes up a large part of the Japanese diet, with tuna being one of the nation’s favorite fish. Raw tuna is often served with grated yam, which adds a little variety to its visual presentation (and also makes for a more economical meal than trying to fill up completely on pricey sashimi-grade fish).
The stickiness of Japanese yam takes some getting used to, and not even everyone born and raised in the country cares for it. The reason for its polarizing texture, though is the protein mucin, which helps the body to absorb the other proteins which tuna is rich in.
Saury and grated daikon radish
Saury is another commonly eaten saltwater fish in Japan, which is almost always accompanied by grated daikon radish.
The saury is a small, slender fish, and since it’s usually grilled, you tend to end up with a lot of char on the skin. In general, the skin of fish are eaten in Japan, both for their flavor and their nutrients. However, that char isn’t exactly the healthiest thing, as it contains carcinogens. The grated daikon, usually mixed with a bit of soy sauce, helps to purge those carcinogens from the body.
Tofu and bonito flakes
Saury and grated daikon is a decidedly old-school combo. They often appear as part of a traditional Japanese meal that involves several side dishes, one of which is likely to be tofu topped with bonito flakes.
Like the laver in miso soup, this again seems like a cosmetic choice at first. But while tofu has a plethora of amino acids, one that it’s decidedly lacking in is methionine. Methionine is essential for maintaining hair color as you age, as well as numerous other things we’re too vain and unintelligent to understand or care about. Thankfully, dried bonito is packed with the stuff, making it the prefect finishing touch for this amino acid cocktail.
Freshwater eel and sansho
All of this talk of dainty health foods is making us hungry, so let’s move on to heartier fare, like unagi, or freshwater eel.
Unagi is usually butterflied, slathered with sauce, grilled, then topped with a dash of the slightly bitter, pepper-like powdered seasoning sansho. Aside from giving the unagi a little color, sansho helps cut down on the eel’s smell, and the condiment is also said to warm the digestive organs and help in breaking down the oils of the unagi, both of which aid in digestion.
Pork cutlet and cabbage
But if you’re really hungry, nothing will fill you up quite like tonkatsu, or pork cutlet. Tonkatsu always comes with a pile of shredded cabbage, which we assumed was simply the closest someone ordering a hunk of deep-fried pig could come to eating a salad.
Once again, though, the cabbage has a vital role to play. The vegetable is rich in vitamin U (something we honestly didn’t know existed), which helps prevent gastric hyperacidity. In other words, that cabbage will keep you from getting a tummy ache. There are limits to what even cabbage can do, though, so don’t assume you can chow down on a second cutlet with no ill effects as long as you finish the cabbage served with it.
Pork curry and pickled shallots
Still hungry? Then how about some curry. At just about any curry restaurant in Japan, you’ll find a jar of pickled shallots on the table, from which diners can take as much as they want. On the surface, this may seem like some ill-thought out method to improve your breath, reasoning that the combined negative effects of curry, onions, and the pickling process will somehow wrap the scale back around and make your breath smell fresh and clean again.
The bad news is that no matter how many pickled shallots (called rakkyo in Japanese) you put away, you’re still going to need a breath mint or four. The good news is that those shallots have plenty of allysine, an amino acid that promotes absorption of the vitamin B1 in pork.
Beer and edamame
Last, and by no means least, one of our favorite pairings in Japan: ice-cold beer and a bowl of edamame, or soybeans.
Edamame are lightly salted and served in the shell. Aside from the fun of popping them directly into your mouth, they’re a much lower calorie beer companion than peanuts or potato chips. Best of all, edamame contain methionine, like the bonito flakes mentioned above, plus vitamins B1 and C, which together help the liver in processing alcohol.
Of course, you could sidestep the whole problem of having to process alcohol by simply not consuming it in the first place. You could easily make the argument that pairing edamame with beer isn’t any better than edamame and tea, or edamame and juice.
And now, with a rebuttal, is beer.
▼ Excellent point. Very convincing.