Monday, January 28, 2013

Food and Japanese

I saw a Japanese news report that among developed countries, Japanese calorie intake have been constantly low. On average, Americans take in 3688cal, Western Europeans take in over 3500cal, Koreans take in 3200cal, and even the Chinese take in 3000 cal. But the Japanese average is 2723cal.

I always knew this from experience. Many Japanese women who lament,"I have to lose weight." are actually thin as a pencil by American standards. They are thin because they watch what they eat.

Many foreigners complain about the amount of food served at restaurants in Japan. On the other hand, the Japanese are amazed by the huge amount of food served in the United States. One portion of Chinese delivery food in the U.S. can easily fill up three Japanese girls.

I remember that when I was in a high school, one of the girls in my class said, "I did really badly yesterday. I ate 10 potato chips!" I thought to myself, "Wow! I often eat a bag of potato chips."

I admit that I have a hearty appetite for a Japanese, and it's showing now. I still don't seem fat in New York, but I feel obese by Japanese standards.

This same news report further noted that Japan has a very low rate of wasted food. Every single Japanese are taught from the time they are young not to waste food, because farmers made great efforts to raise their crop. My grandmother said to me, "You will be blinded if you leave any grains of rice in your rice bowl." In Japan, food is served in a small portion, and people are expected to finish it.

When I walk over rice on the sidewalk in front of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in my neighborhood after it had a wedding ceremony, I cannot help feeling guilty when stepping on rice, because throwing rice is a cardinal sin in Japan. For Japanese, rice is sacred.

Recently, the Washington Post wrote an article about Japanese school lunch system. In each public primary and middle schools, lunch is made from scratch on the premises every day. Japanese children are eating delicious nutritious hot meal at school.

I often hear a word "shokuiku", which means food education. They believe that nutritious food educates children from the inside, so they will be able to make correct food choices when they become adults.

Japanese children eat vegetables, but rarely take sugary drinks, junk and pre-packaged food. But in order to make it possible, someone has to make the sacrifice to cook food from scratch every day. That burden of cooking is usually on women. 

It was more than 60 years ago when Japan was deprived of food. My parents generation in 70s remember the experience of starvation vividly, but the rest of the population including myself grew up in abundance.

In a way it is amazing that a country of gourmet and charismatic chefs eats healthy and maintains a decent calorie intake. I think it is due to the Japanese attitude towards food.

Almost all Japanese say a short word, "itadakimasu" before eating, and "gochisosama" after eating. They roughly translate, "I am going to eat now," and "Thank you for the wonderful meal," respectively.

But they are also an expression of the gratitude to all the people who made it possible to put the food on the table, including farmers, fishermen, food preparers, and the ones who earn money to buy food. Because of the efforts and sacrifices people make, the food must not be wasted.

A big challenge for Japan is to increase food sustainability in the country. Japanese food sustainability rate is extremely low. People consider grown and made in Japan food as safer than imported counterparts, and they command a premium price. People are willing to spend extra for those products, particularly for children.

Currently, produce are locally grown, but the ingredients of processed food is largely imported. Government has to answer people's demand, rather than answering to foreign trade pressures.

Here is one actual example from a Japanese restaurant in a northern island. The restaurant fines customers for not finishing meal, to honor the fishermen who brave dangerous conditions to provide the delicious food. The story was reported in Yahoo! News. My grandmother would deeply agree.

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