The people of Japan are so gracious and polite, it’s certain they’ll forgive us for reporting that their cuisine is about as #foodporn as it gets. When a plate is set before you, it is an edible masterpiece, with precise care given to the balance of colors, the mix of textures and, of course, a delicious, satisfying blend of flavors.
But for a culture focused so squarely on food—Tokyo claims the most Michelin stars in the world—the people of Japan are in tip-top health. For proof, consider their average lifespan—at 86 years it puts them
in second place on the planet’s life expectancy chart, a full seven years longer than the average American.
Their fountain of youth? A reverence for clean, whole food and the country’s ancient methods of preserving it. Like the Japanese culture itself, there is an important yin-yang to the diet here.
Where American diets are heavy on highly acidic foods like refined sugar and red meat, Japanese diets are balanced between acidic and alkaline foods that keep a body’s pH in check.
That’s one of the reasons Eden Foods co-founder and president Michael Potter has long been a fan of the diet, and includes several premium, tradi- tionally made Japanese products in his all-organic lineup. An early adopter of macrobiotics, Potter is admittedly obsessed with the purity and wholeness of the foods we eat. And it started innocently enough in the 1960s, when his sister gave him the book that launched the macrobiotics revolution: “You Are All Sanpaku,” by George Ohsawa.
“By the time I finished reading it as a 19 year old,” Potter says, “I’d made a decision to stop eating meat and sugar, and began a quest to acquire such things as brown rice, miso, sea vegetables, and the like. That’s what eventually gave rise to Eden Foods.”
“WHEN I STARTED SELLING SEA VEGETABLES TO AMERICANS, THE TYPICAL RESPONSE WAS, SEAWEED? YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME. THEY THOUGHT WE WERE CRAZY. TODAY, NOT SO MUCH.”
—MICHAEL POTTER, EDEN FOODS
But it’s only in recent years that the revolution has truly reached the masses. Now it’s common knowledge that whole grains nurture our bodies far more fully than refined ones. The funky fermented drink, kombucha, is suddenly a billion-dollar business as we more fully digest the knowledge that we need a probiotic gut check. And you don’t need to travel to Seattle to get decent sashimi—even small Midwestern cities are dotted with raw fish options.
Potter celebrates the dietary enlightenment. “When I started selling sea vegetables to Americans,” he says, “the typical response was, Seaweed? You’ve got to be kidding me. They thought we were crazy. Today, not so much. People generally know that there’s something healthy about sea vegetables. They may not appreciate it or fully understand it, but they have caught wind of the fact that, hey, there is some benefit to that. It’s not as crazy as it sounded back in the late ‘60s.”
It’s not just the healthy load of vitamins and minerals these foods bring, but the natural and traditional ways that the food is processed and preserved that keeps a body balanced and ready to ward off all manner of illness. Potter puts it in stark terms: “The fact is,” he says, “our human body must maintain a pH balance within a very narrow range or ultimately we die. So, the acid-alkaline component of a diet, to me, is important. I think if you eat a normal healthy diet, as I see it, that issue takes care of itself. You maintain a good balance. But if you eat only the standard American fare, you’ve got a severe imbalance. And over an extended period of time, there are all kinds of consequences from that.”
Nutrition research—and, let’s face it, common sense—backs him up. A body that’s out of whack because of ingesting too much acid (like processed foods, meat, sugar, caffeine) and not enough alkaline (think nuts, legumes, vegetables, fermented foods, whole grains) can lead to, among other negatives, a reduced absorption of vitamins and minerals, a weakened immune system, joint and muscle pain, diabetes, and heart disease. Keeping your body close to a neutral pH of 7 is the goal.
Fermentation plays a big role in the balancing act. “Fermentation prepares the foods for easy assimilation by the human body,” Potter says, “while it imparts new nutrients. On top of that, it changes the character of the food and makes it more tasty, while it facilitates its storage for various periods of time and/or for transportation.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the often genetically enhanced and highly processed foods that line shelf after shelf in the typical U.S. grocery store. “The healthful efficacy of traditional foods becomes watered down or destroyed by many commonly used commercial processing methods,” Potter says. “Most of which are designed to enhance the pro tability of selling those items.”
That’s why Potter is fine with sending his people—like our guides Bran- don Moeckel, information manager in Eden’s purchasing department and his Japan-based colleague Ema Sogabe of Mitoku foods export division—to the far corners of Japan and other countries. The goal is to find organic foods that are meticulously sourced, or identity preserved in foodie talk, and that don’t go through the thrashers of commercial production, but rely on ancient preservation techniques for their staying power.
Join us on a journey to find the best eats on the planet.
Our first stop is a sloshy one, as Mr. Kohei Oka of wakame supplier Awa Ichiba invites us to pile into a small, no-frills boat designed to harvest the nutrient-dense, extra-large sea vegetable that Japanese sea-farmers have been growing for centuries. We are motoring across vivid blue waters to the wakame sea-fields found in the Naruto Strait, where the Pacific meets the Inland Japan Sea and the mineral-rich currents are swift and cold enough to grow top-shelf wakame.
Forget about the slimy kelp that you may have come in contact with—or more likely tried to avoid coming into contact with—at the beach. When we bite off a mouthful from a long, golden-brown wakame frond that is hauled up onto the boat—still attached to the rope that was inoculated with its spores and that serves as a holdfast— it’s got a crisp, crunchy snap to it. It tastes of the sea to be sure, though with a natural sweetness to balance the saltiness.
Once harvested from its watery “field,” the wakame is processed right on the dock. It goes through a salty, boiling bath to sterilize and preserve
it and turn it bright green. Though its eaten fresh in Japan, imported wakame is dried. In Eden’s product line, you will find it dried and packaged in flakes or strips. A good soaking in water will coax the wakame to expand and return to its tender, bright-green shape.
You’ve likely eaten wakame if you’ve ordered miso soup at the local sushi spot. Drop it into your own soups and you’ll enjoy the taste of the sea—and benefit from the seaweed’s super-food status, which includes a roster of minerals. “They’re different from land vegetables,” says Wendy Esko, director of marketing research for Eden Foods, “because each one of them has trace minerals, which are very rare in land plants. I believe they have about every mineral in the sea.”
Wakame has serious health cred. Along with iron, its mineral resume in- cludes iodine, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, and calcium—all useful in keeping the organs and cells of our bodies operating at peak function. The sea vegetable also comes packing with an alphabet of healthful vitamins: A, C, E, K, and B. Its delicate leaves are a plant-based source for omega 3 fatty acids—the best kind of fat. All of this in a low-calorie, high-fiber food that fills you up.
The most intriguing elements found in wakame are bioactive elements that have tongue-twister names such as fucoxanthin and fucoidan, with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that are thought to fight everything from fat accumulation to tumors. There is much research on this, but the best evidence could be the low incidence of certain cancers in Japan.
If that’s not enough to sway you toward this vegetable of the sea, producing it also goes easy on the environment. It’s a sustainable food source that actually cleans the water, thrives off excessive nutrients in waterways, and doesn’t require many resources to produce. Growing it doesn’t involve fertilizer, land erosion, or deforestation.
-Traditionally served over rice or noodles or as a side dish in Japan, you can brighten up any pasta or rice dish with wakame.
-Make your own miso soup, or drop it into any soup for added taste and nutrition.
-Toss rehydrated wakame into salads or sprinkle dried wakame on top for a little crunch.
From our sea-level adventure at the wakame harvest, our team hops in a van and travels up, around, and up some more through the picturesque mountains of the Wakayama Prefecture. Wakayama is known as ‘the fruit kingdom,’ its rich soil and mild climate provide the perfect conditions for growing all kinds of sweet produce. But we’re driving through these misty hills to learn about umeboshi, a type of salted plum that has mythic status in Japan. The superfood was used as medicine centuries ago—and it was given to samurai in the 15th century for energy and to ward off bugs as they went to battle.
Although there are commercial producers of umeboshi, that’s not how the folks at Eden Foods roll. So we’re heading to the Ryujin Natural Food Center to witness an age-old, natural method of turning the green, unripe fruit into this fermented and preserved Japanese food staple. Yuta Asama will take us through the process of preserving the fruit using only salt and a brine that’s colored red with shiso leaves, a natural herb in the mint family, that gives the final product its rosy complexion.
But first we want to see the plum trees themselves—which is far easier said than done. In Mr. Asama’s family orchard, the gnarly trees grow in various patches on steep hillsides. The agility and effort required to harvest them is labor intensive, which only adds to the prized status of the final product.
Once plucked from the trees, the plums are washed and then placed in large kegs with sea salt. They rest there for a month, with the salt drawing out the juices to create a pickling brine of lactic acid that will inhibit the growth of bad bacteria. Then the plums (which are technically a type of apricot) are pulled from the vat and dried in the open air on wooden racks. Once they’re returned to the vat, red leaves from the minty shiso plant are mixed into the brine, adding color and a natural preservative that is said to be 1,000 times stronger than synthetic ones. The leaves also contribute to the ume’s superpowers; they are known to boost digestive health. The dried plums are returned to the vat to soak for a few days before they are placed in kegs to age for one year to five years.
Prepare to pucker up when you taste umeboshi. Its intense salty, tart taste takes some getting used to, but the tartness comes from a super-high concentration of citric acid. That gives the fruit its ability to boost immunity and circulation. The alkalinizing fruit also tamps down pylori bacteria in the gut, known to cause gastro issues along with stomach ulcers and cancer.
Besides being available as a whole fruit, umeboshi is processed into paste that offers a convenient way to add its potent kick to your recipes. The remaining shiso leaves are sun-dried and ground into powder as a condiment. Even the pickling brine is used to make a salt vinegar. Nothing is wasted in this 2,000-year-old natural process.
-The Japanese people serve umeboshi as an accompaniment to rice—often plunking a whole one right in the center of a rice dish.
-For those into sour foods, nibble on one first thing in the morning to stimulate digestion and boost energy.
-Use the paste to add tang to salad dressings, dips, and
vegetable dishes. Spread a little on corn on the cob to balance the corn’s sweetness.
“THE JAPANESE PEOPLE—BY VIRTUE OF THEIR CULTURE—TAKE THINGS TO A HIGH LEVEL OR EVEN THE HIGHEST LEVEL OF DEVELOPMENT. FOOD IS NO EXCEPTION.”
—MICHAEL POTTER, EDEN FOODS
Next up, we leave sea and mountains in the rear view and head by train to the industrialized metropolis of Nagoya in central Japan, home base for Toyota, ceramics maker Noritake, and other corporate giants.
But we are in the thick of it to learn how sweet rice is pounded to a pulp and made into mochi, the dense treat that’s been ceremoniously served for centuries at Japanese New Year, birthdays, weddings, and various other parties. Its attributes gave rise to the food’s symbolism—mochi strengthens the body and revives the spirit.
We pull up to a nondescript building where Mr. Tadashi Kojima of Kojima Foods makes his family’s version of the rice cake. While most mochi is made of polished sweet white rice, Mr. Kojima starts with sprouted whole-grain sweet brown rice. It’s a process learned from his father, who turned to macrobiotics to battle a debilitating kidney disease—and won. Since 1974, Kojima has been making only whole-grain mochi.
Once we are thoroughly garbed in lab coats, hairnets, and special boots, we scrub our hands (under close supervision) and are then de-linted. Now, we’re ready to enter a food manufacturing facility that seems sterile enough to host open-heart surgery.
It’s not just the whole-grain rice that makes Kojima unique in the mochi world, this is a company that’s also making the rice cakes the old-fashioned way…by pounding them into submission. Instead of the ancient method of scraping out a tree trunk to make a mortar and pounding it with a wooden mallet, Mr. Kojima uses a high-tech granite pestle contraption that he himself invented. “Most of mochi in Japan isn’t really pounded,” says Eden’s Wendy Esko, “it’s put through a grinder. But traditionally the Japanese believe that it’s the pounding action that makes mochi a strengthening food. And it’s easier to digest.”
After it’s been pounded for over an hour, the mochi is pressed into a slab, hardened for three days in a fridge, then cut into pieces and vacuum- packed. This process results in a hard cake that extends the shelf life of the product to two years instead of the two-day lifespan of fresh, glutinous mochi. These mochi cakes look like a hotel-sized bar of soap, but stick them on a hot griddle or in a toasty oven and the rice cake becomes crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside.
But it’s a treat that also packs in some potent health benefits. Sprouted brown rice has four times more fiber and vitamin E than regular rice and three times more vitamin B-1, vitamin B-6, and magnesium. Thanks to enzymes found in sprouted brown rice, the whole-grain rice is easier to digest, making the nutrients more readily absorbed. Mochi has also been found to regulate muscle tone and support nervous system and kidney health.
-Pan fry the cake with or without oil, wrap a piece of nori around it and dip it in soy sauce. It’s the Japanese take on a burrito and a popular snack.
-Drop cooked pieces of mochi into miso soup as a kind of dumpling.
-Cut the cakes into strips and put them in a waffle iron to make gluten-free mochi waffles that are crispy on the outside but moist in the inside.
When we leave the high-tech interpretation of traditional mochi-making, we hop another one of Japan’s famously efficient trains for a ride to where miso is being made, in a decidedly low-tech way. At Hatcho Miso—a pin-worthy compound of charcoal colored barns and buildings—they stick with what works. The company makes miso the same way they have since 1645, using methods that date back to 1337. It’s the realest deal. And Mr. Kenji Nomura, Hatcho Miso’s quality control chief, is about to show us why.
Here’s how it goes: Organic soybeans are soaked in water, steamed, then layered with koji mold, a type of microorganism that ferments the beans. Once fermented, the beans are mixed with sea salt and water, then placed
in a gigantic cedar cask (many more than 100 years old) that holds six tons of miso. Here it will sit and stew for two years, topped by a lid held down with an expertly stacked cairn of stones—three tons of them packed so tightly they’ve been known to survive earthquakes—that presses the miso into a dense paste with the consistency of Play-Doh. The microbial communities living in the cool dark environment of the facility’s old barn and the antique wooden tub itself both pitch in to ferment the mixture until it‘s a rich paste packed with amino acids.
The process is old school but the science is exact, and the result is a complex, assertive miso that is darker and more pungent than the sweet, mild white or yellow miso you are served in Japanese restaurants stateside. It’s like a stout beer in a cold case of pilsners. This miso defines the word umami. And for the American palate, it can take some getting used to. Even Michael Potter had to get acclimated to its robust kick. “I remember well the first time I tasted it. I thought, Wow, this is really bad,” Potter says. “But it was so important in the macrobiotic diet I knew I had to try it again. I acquired a taste for it after only the second time around.”
And so it goes with umami, that fifth, savory taste sensation that’s tough to define and tougher to resist. But you can choose to get your umami fix by downing a mushroom and Swiss cheeseburger, or you can train your tongue to go in a more nutritious direction. Miso contains a wealth of enzymes and microorganisms that aid digestion and help to build healthy intestinal flora while keeping undesirable flora in check. During fermentation the protein of the soybeans and grain are disassembled into amino acids, including all eight essential ones. Not only that, the enzymes in miso aid in the digestion of the protein and starches in grains, beans, and vegetables, making it an essential addition to a vegan or vegetarian way of eating.
No wonder shoguns were given miso for strength and endurance. Modern-day Japanese emperors are known to down it every day. And we Westerners are beginning to recognize it as a superfood that is healthful and crave-inducing, if you give it a second (or third or maybe seventh) chance.
-A little of the stout red miso goes a long way. A small amount will add complexity to salad dressings, soup stock, or even mustard.
-Make a rich marinade for fish, vegetables, or meat. Or mix it with ground beef for a tastier patty.
-Whisk miso with butter and use it to sauté all types of veggies to give them a flavor kick.
The final lap of our ingredients-tour takes us to Futtsu, about an hour outside of Tokyo. Our mode of travel shifts from bus, train, boat, and more trains to the top-stitched leather interior of a Mercedes Benz driven by Mr. Toyo Yoshida, the president of Mitoku—a top food exporter who helps ensure Eden Foods receives the purest of ingredients and products. We whiz down the freeway past Tokyo Disneyland to Futtsu and the Taihei facility. Here, General Manager Koji Ihashi will school us on how soy sauce should be made—but usually isn’t.
Authentic shoyu—a Japanese style of soy sauce—is made by brewmasters skilled in the art of natural fermentation techniques that have been used for centuries. Like miso, koji is the agent that inoculates the ingredients—this time a mix of roasted whole soybeans and steamed wheat. Salt water is added to the mix to create a mash called moromi. It’s moved to an aged barrel to ferment further, drawing on good bacteria from the 100-year-old barn’s rafters and walls (which seem to be dripping with it) to age. From there the fermented mash is pressed and filtered through cotton cloths to separate the liquid from the mash. The raw soy is heated up to kill yeast and other microbes, to stabilize it, and to enhance the flavor.
You can check us on this, but if you haven’t tasted traditionally made soy sauce, you haven’t tasted soy sauce. According to the folks at Eden, soy sauce should be chosen with the same care given to a fine wine or extra virgin olive oil. Most commercial soy sauces are primarily sugar, water, refined salt, caramel color, and enzymes that are fermented on a fast track under temperature-con-trolled artificial conditions. And they’re commonly made with genetically engineered soybeans, defatted with hexane, a chemical made from crude oil that’s used to make foods more shelf-stable.
Organic, non-GMO shoyu offers the probiotic benefits from fermentation. Though it has high sodium content, studies have found that when soy sauce is fermented the traditional way, the soybeans are broken down into peptides, which actually counter the blood-vessel constricting activity of sodium. Shoyu also offers antioxidant benefits, including the peptides and manganese. It comes with a concentrated dose of protein and B vitamins.
Another big benefit from organic, traditional shoyu is what it does to the food we eat. The complex, natural chemical makeup of the stuff gives it a full deep flavor that doesn’t overpower. “Shoyu is added at the end of cooking as a finishing sauce,” says Wendy Esko. “It has the unique ability to harmonize and enhance the flavors of food.”
-Splash it on as a finishing condiment instead of a sprinkle of salt— over rice, pasta, and as a marinade.
-Shoyu will add complexity to dips and dressings of all kinds.
-Mix it with butter when you sauté vegetables and marvel at how the flavors of both vegetable and shoyu shine.