I’ve come to accept that skincare is more than the products I use. (Surprise!) There’s only so much I can expect from a “cult” product if I’m not willing to make proper lifestyle changes. So, I’ve started researching natural, plant-based skincare and how to “eat for beauty” by incorporating Japanese superfoods into my diet. Which is why I’ve come up with “The (Not-So) Definitive Guide to Japanese Superfoods and (Anti-)Aging Care.”
Superfoods, the Japanese Diet, and a Developing Healthy Relationship With Food
The word “superfood” is everywhere now, it seems. But, what exactly are superfoods, and what are they supposed to do?
To put it simply, superfoods are primarily plant-based, nutrient-rich foods that are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, enzymes, and healthy fats that supercharge the body. Common superfoods include açaí, avocado, kale, broccoli, quinoa, spirulina.
The reason why I’m all about Japanese superfoods is the reason why I switched from K-beauty to J-beauty: convenience. I know I can get wheatgrass, quinoa, and health supplements from iHerb or Amazon Japan. However, I prefer Japanese superfoods because they’re all readily available and are common ingredients in a typical Japanese meal or side dish.
A Traditional Japanese Meal
At home, I cook a lot of Japanese dishes. When meal planning, I use the traditional Japanese meal format of ichi jiru sansai (一汁三采), or “one soup and three dishes [served with a bowl of rice].” There’s one main dish, which could be fish, meat, stew, or sautee. It’s rounded out with a side dish of (usually) pickles (漬物 | tsukemono) and a salad or other vegetable dish.
When I incorporate Japanese superfood ingredients into my meals, I don’t have to go out of my way to make smoothies or adjust my tastebuds to something that doesn’t suit me. Cooking is already a labor of love, so why would I want to add more to my workload?!
Developing a Healthy Relationship With Food
This is especially important for me because I don’t want my daughter to grow up with complexes about food. I want her to see me having a healthy relationship with food. I want to create positive memories of us cooking together and eating together. Rather than enforcing “good foods,” “bad foods,” and “cheat days,” I want to establish a relationship between portions and moderation.
By consciously incorporating these Japanese superfoods into my diet, I’ve already begun to make diet changes to accommodate my age and work-from-home lifestyle.
Before we start, please note two things. (1) I have become rather fond of the Japanese term for anti-aging, which is called “aging care” (エイジングケア | eijingu kea).
I appreciate the approach that sees aging as a privilege, which is why up until 2015, the Japanese government gave anyone celebrating their 100th birthday a sterling silver sake cup. (2) I am not a dietician, nutritionist, nor do I have any authority to give medical advice. I am simply blogging about what works for me.
The (Not-So) Definitive Guide to Japanese Superfoods and (Anti-)Aging Care
Aojiru is one of the Japanese drinks I recommend for pregnant and nursing women. If you’re unfamiliar with aojiru, it’s a green powder rich in nutrients that caught on in Japan back in the 1940s. You can buy it in bulk (in individual satchels), but I’ve seen ready-made aojiru “juice boxes” in vending machines and in convenience stores, too.
The downside to aojiru is that it really has that “healthy,” “earthy” taste, but it’s great in smoothies or you can mix it in oatmeal, yogurt, or acai bowl. In my case, it’s been four years since my pregnancy and birth journey, and I still like to start every morning with a cup of hot aojiru and honey.
Green Tea — 緑茶 | Ryokucha
Green tea is loaded with polyphenol and antioxidants, and can help improve blood flow and lower cholesterol. (The polyphenol and antioxidants in green tea also make it an excellent choice as a skincare ingredient, too!)
There are several kinds of green tea. You’ve got sencha (煎茶), young, steamed tea leaves; robust, aromatic houijcha (ほうじ茶); genmaicha (玄米茶), a mix of green tea and brown toasted brown rice; and matcha (抹茶), the bright green powdered form of green tea.
Komatsuna is my go-to Japanese superfood because it’s readily available in supermarkets and farmer’s markets everywhere. At first glance, it looks very similar to spinach. But, komatsuna has a broader stalk, and its leaves are round, smooth, and not as “veiny.”
Komatsuna is one of Japan’s healthiest vegetables and contains 3.5 times more calcium than spinach! It’s also rich in iron and vitamin C, too. (See this post for more nutrition information.)
It’s an incredibly versatile leafy green that pairs well with Western and Japanese dishes, including sweets and confectionaries. One of my favorite ways to eat komatsuna is as a side dish. After I steam and drain it, I season the komatsuna with yuzupon citrus sauce and add sesame seeds and ground sesame for texture. My daughter, on the other hand, loves komatsuna udon.
By the way, komatsuna is also the star ingredient of my sustainable beauty brand, [EDO BEAUTY LAB]! Edogawa City, where our signature Green Radiance Clay Mask is manufactured, just happens to be Tokyo’s leading producer of Komatsuna.
Another staple in Japanese cuisine is miso, which can be used to make soup. To make miso, soybeans are fermented with salt and koji. The resulting paste is a savory probiotic rich in proteins, vitamins B, E, K, folic acid, and enzymes that aid in digestion.
When shopping for miso, be on the lookout for organic and additive types. You’ll want something that has 無添加 (mutenka | additive-free) and 有機 (yuuki | organic) on the label. Note that miso is salty, so if you want to limit your sodium intake, check for 減塩 (gen en | reduced sodium) on the package.
If you have never heard of (or more accurately, smelled) natto, then you might be missing out on Japan’s greatest superfood! I don’t say that as a natto aficionado, but because Ibaraki Prefecture is Japan’s number one producer of natto. (There’s even a natto museum! For more on Ibaraki foods, check out this post: Ibaraki’s Best Culinary Experiences: 10 Must-Try Food and Drinks)
Natto is a dish made from fermented soybeans that has its own section in the Japanese supermarket simply because there are so many varieties out there. It’s a probiotic that’s rich in proteins and Vitamin K. If you’re new to natto, start off with minced (ひきわり | hikiwari) natto or the kind with small beans (小粒 | kotsubu). After you open the package of natto, stir vigorously (add soy sauce and mustard to taste), then serve atop fresh rice, as a side dish, or with a beaten raw egg.
Rice (雑穀ご飯 | zakkoku gohan)
Yes, rice is a carb. (A deliciously filling carb, if I may add.) But, I’m not talking about nutrient-less white rice here. One of my favorite ways to add variety to mealtime and add nuttires is by adding a packet of grains to the rice cooker when I prepare white rice. This rice grain mix, zakkokumai (雑穀米), contains a variety of grains and seeds which add nutrients and fiber to plain white rice.
Zakkokumai is commonly sold in individual packets, and you add one packet to 2 to 3 cups of white rice. Simply measure out 2 to 3 cups of white rice, add to the rice cooker, fill water to the appropriate line, empty out the packet of zakkokumai, and set the rice cooker. Pretty easy!
(For those of you in Japan: I usually buy this 20 grain mix from Top Valu. You can buy it at Aeon supermarket, the mini-supermarket chain, My Basket, or online (after signing up for Aeon’s online supermarket service, though.) I also like this version from Oisix, but you’ll have to measure out the servings before adding it to your rice cooker.)
Seaweed (海藻 | kaisou)
Japan is an island nation, so it’s not surprising that its cuisine features seaweed and other delicacies of the sea. Seaweed is rich in fiber, and it’s also high in iodine, iron, Vitamins B-12, C and K. Here are a few types of seaweed to try:
- Nori (のり): dried and seasoned seaweed pressed into sheets used to wrap rice balls (onigiri) and sushi rolls. The salted/flavored ones are called okazu nori (おかずのり) and absolutely great for snack time!
- Aonori (青のり): powdered seaweed used as a garnish
- Kombu (昆布): sea kelp that adds umami to soup stocks. Try shio kombu (塩昆布 | salted kelp) as a topping for rice and salads.
- Wakame (わかめ): a wonderful source of folic acid great in soup and salads. Kuki wakame (茎わかめ) is the snacking kind of wakame popular among children and adults in Japan.
- Hijiki (ひじき): high in iron and the staple of pregnant women in Japan. When simmered with soybeans and veggies (hijiki nimono | ひじき煮物), it becomes a quick side dish that rounds out a bento box or dinner plate.
Tofu is a byproduct of soybeans. It comes in silken, soft, firm, or extra firm varieties, but I personally prefer the firm types. You’re probably aware of the benefits of using tofu as a meat substitute as it is loaded with iron, protein, and calcium. Plus, it’s gluten-free, low in calories, and relatively inexpensive!
There are all kinds of ways you can prepare tofu, but I like to keep it simple. My daughter loves the Chinese dish mapo tofu (spicy tofu) and tofu makes frequent appearances in my miso soup. But, my favorite way to eat tofu is by simply cutting it into blocks and eating with sesame seed dressing.
White Fish (白身魚 | shiromi zakana)
I’m from the southern US, and I can’t recall ever eating fish that wasn’t fried (or baked with lots of seasoning). So, you can imagine how shocking it was for me coming to Japan for the first time! Now, sushi night is a regular thing for me, and I prefer my grilled fish with just a hint of seasoning.
White fish is low in fat, high in collagen, and it’s easy to digest. It’s great source of proteins and contains astaxanthin, a compound with “anti-aging” properties. Types of white fish to look out for are sea bream (タイ | tai), halibut (ヒラメ | hirame), flounder (カレイ | karei), cod (タラ | tara), and sea bass (スズキ | suzuki). (For what it’s worth, eel [ウナギ | unagi] and conger [ハモ | hamo] are classified as “white fish” in Japan.)
The (Not-So) Definitive Guide to Japanese Superfoods and (Anti-)Aging Care
When I was breastfeeding, I was incredibly conscious of what I ate. (Especially because I was desperately trying to figure out if my daughter’s skin condition was caused by something I ate.) But, once my daughter fully weaned last summer, I started to go back to old habits and indulge in all the foods and drinks that were once on my “can’t” list. However, over the past few months, I’ve been paying more attention what I put on my skin. Now, I’m focusing more on what I put in my body as well. This guide to Japanese superfoods is far from done, but it’s the start of a new chapter in The Beauty Files, my J-beauty journey, and overcoming doubt and insecurities as I get older.