Why Japanese Home Cooking Makes Healthy Feel Effortless
Advice From the 100 Year Old Neighborhood Lady
When I first decided I wanted to change the way I took care of my health, the idea of simple and small was counterintuitive to the popular dialogue I found online: my Google search results were filled with articles on sugar and fruit elimination, a diet of 90% fats and proteins, and why I should be eating within a 4-hour time frame. Sometimes I would feel exhausted and stressed just reading about it.
I eventually would end up ignoring the advice, and instead took inspiration from those around me: my active grandmother who often seemed like she had more energy than me, the lean Japanese neighbors who looked 40 but were actually in their 60s, or the neighborhood store lady who would casually mention that she had just turned 100 years old this month.
They were very normal people, but it seemed to me that they had found the miraculous fountain of youth — there must be something special there. But when I asked them how they ate, they would just tell me health advice as old as time: eat a variety of whole foods, and eat it in moderation.
Straightforward enough I thought, but it turns out I missed the whole picture with this one.
The Key I Missed from Their Advice
I became very focused on getting many vegetables a day. I strived for maximum color and plates that looked like rainbows. I measured and portioned, and balanced my meals perfectly. I used fancy ingredients, complicated recipes, and bought the hard-to-get superfoods. It was quite an investment in time and energy, but this time I really wanted it to work, so that only made sense right?
Well, it didn’t last too long.
It became a bit overwhelming. Too many things to pay attention to and too messy of a kitchen, I frequently got frustrated with myself. Often the thought of cooking began to tire me, and I found myself losing that initial motivation. The homemade meals slowly became takeout, and slowly it became foods I wasn’t necessarily proud of eating.
It was only years later when I dug a bit deeper, that I found that there was another layer to the classic ‘eat whole foods, not too much’ advice. The Japanese people I looked up to for eating so well didn’t just credit the vegetables and whole foods, but they also credited their approach to it: namely, that they kept it as simple as possible.
The Marvel That is the Two-Vegetable Side Dish
Japanese side dishes, or okazu, are relatively easy to put together, and are usually composed of only a few key ingredients that I always have in my pantry — umami-rich staple ingredients like soy sauce, sake, miso, or a combination of the above. Eventually Japanese okazu recipes became my automatic go-to not because they were particularly touted as healthy, but because they offered vegetable dishes with an ingredients list only a few bullet points long.
And as I looked up more beginner-friendly Japanese home cooking dishes, I began to notice a pattern: Japanese home cooking often made a point of using just two kinds of vegetables in each side dish.
In fact, I often found that the names of Japanese okazu dishes in cookbooks followed the format of: [Vegetable 1] and [Vegetable 2] [Cooking Style]
- Spinach and Enoki Mushroom Ohitashi
- Kabocha and Wakame Miso Soup
- Okra Natto Salad
- Daikon and Nagaimo Soy Sauce Grill
- Cabbage and Carrot Miso Sauté
Nothing too complicated and nothing too overwhelming, just dishes made two vegetables at a time.
Success is in the Small, Slow, Unnoticeable Steps
It was this idea of bare-minimum simplicity that I realized was the key to sustainable habits. Because while a goal of many vegetables a day is admirable, in the beginning it’s much more sustainable to start with something as little as two.
I learned that with an approach of two-vegetable dishes at a time, I would be a lot more consistent, and over time a large variety would become very natural. In fact, now following that framework and cooking a few simple dishes a day, I often find that it’s almost difficult to not reach at least several kinds of vegetables a day.
After I pared down my cooking routine, I almost immediately began to see changes in not just the way I ate, but the way I felt about it. Home cooking became a joy rather than a chore, and what was once a stressful endeavor became something I looked forward to. I grew confident in my ability to take care of myself, and felt a lot of self love in the act of nourishment. I looked better, I felt better, and eventually the reverberations of good health expanded to other areas in my life.
Big changes, small waves.
So while variety and plenty of vegetables is important, take a deep breath and don’t be afraid to start small, and then go even smaller: the occasional two-vegetable side dish is a great way to start.