Gathering around a dinner table is a powerful way to connect with loved ones and put differences aside to bond over the sharing of food. Food is more than something we eat for pleasure, food can portray love and reflect generations of tradition. Unfortunately, westernized diets have fallen away from using healthy ingredients such as fermented vegetables and flavorful spices. Fear not! There are many great cooking secrets we can glean from countries around the world that can improve our health and expand our culinary skills.
Japan, home of the some of the healthiest people in the world. Until recent years, Japan had the longest life expectancy worldwide (now second to Monaco) and is proudly home to a large number of centenarians.1,2 Japan uses many healthy ingredients such as green tea, fermented soy, mushrooms, and dried seaweed.3 A recent study published in the British Medical Journal found that those who followed the Japanese dietary guidelines were associated with a lower risk of total mortality.4 Specifically, they had a lower risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease. There are two insightful applications we can take from Japan. The first is Ishoki-dogen, which can be translated to “food is medicine.” The second, hara hachi bu means “Eat until your stomach is 80 percent full.”3 Eating slowly allows your body to register how full it really is before you eat too much. Take your time when eating to appreciate your meal and practice self-discipline to stop eating before you overeat.
When you think of Indian food, spices are probably the first ingredient that comes to mind. Staple ingredients in Indian cooking include rice, coconut, and spices such as turmeric, known for their anti-inflammatory properties.3 Andy Bellatti from Berkley Wellness states, “Indian cuisine—with its liberal use of healthful and flavorful spices and herbs like ginger, cinnamon, coriander, and turmeric—is full of antioxidants, regardless of its geographic origin. The presence of lentils, garbanzo beans, and herbs in many dishes also makes Indian food a high-fiber and vegetarian/vegan-friendly option.”5 How can you incorporate Indian techniques into your cooking? Dry-fry your spices over the stove top! No oil needed. Simply heat a cast iron skillet and add whole spices of your choice until you notice that lovely aroma, then add them to your dish. The more you learn about flavoring food with spices, the less you will find yourself reaching for the butter and salt.
I’m not talking about a greasy slice of super-sized pizza, I’m talking about true Italian cooking. Italian cooking is about fresh ingredients from the garden. Eating this way naturally forces you to eat seasonally.3 When we eat seasonally, we fill our diets with a wide range of fruits and vegetables and consume them at their prime harvest time with optimal nutritional value. Courtney Eaton, contributor to the University of New Hampshire’s Healthy UNH writes, “…the quality of the ingredients is crucial in Italian cuisine, not the quantity of food. In the United States, one single meal at an Italian restaurant could feed a small family.”6 To adopt the Italian way of cooking, don’t get too caught up in the recipes that have 20 steps. Instead, focus on the simple combinations and don’t forget to use cold pressed olive oil. Even better, you can join a local produce co-op or visit a weekend farmers market to stock up.
Lebanese cooking follows closely along the Mediterranean diet, using unique flavors like lemon, suman and pomegranate molasses, vegetarian or vegan dishes, pickled foods, and yogurt.3 Similar to Japan, the Lebanese also view food as medicine. Plant-based dishes are key in Lebanese cooking, making these dishes fresh and healthy. Maureen Abood, author of Rose Water & Orange Blossoms: Fresh and Classic Recipes from My Lebanese Kitchen states, “We love to stuff everything from cabbage to summer squash to grape leaves with vegetarian fillers and cook them in garlic or tomato broth.”3 The benefits of Mediterranean cooking? A lower risk of cardiovascular events and reduced inflammation.7
Trying new ingredients and recipes can be intimidating. Not sure where to start? Visit a new restaurant or enroll in a cooking class. Serving your family a tasty and healthy dish is a great reward.