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Japan’s Ancient Diet Food

Imagine eating a seaweed dish that triples in size in your stomach and makes you feel full while aiding your digestion. Or an Asian yam preparation that can fill you up and provide dietary fiber, minerals and protein with a negligible number of calories. It may sound like another diet fad invented in a laboratory, but it is not. Kanten and konnyaku, gelatins derived from ancient foods, are commonly used in Japanese cuisine.

It’s seldom you find a Japanese person on a diet. For the most part, the population doesn’t have a weight issue. Average Japanese women’s sizes are 7 and 9, which are the equivalent to an American extra small and small. What makes them so lean? Asian genes? Yes. Exercise? Most Japanese use public transportation, so they walk a lot. But the Japanese diet is probably the primary reason that Japanese, as a nation, stay within the normal weight range. According to the current Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Health at a Glance, Japan has the lowest obesity rate, just 3 percent. In contrast, the U.S. obesity rate is more than 30 percent, making it the fattest among the OECD countries.

The Japanese diet is based on seafood and vegetables. Meat is eaten, but in moderation. Natural flavors are the main emphasis, which means Japanese cooks don’t fuss too much with oils and sauces. Japanese cuisine is light and plain, lending itself to being low in calories and fat.

In an effort to promote healthy Japanese foods to Americans, JETRO (Japanese External Trade Organization) in Los Angeles is offering two professional food events titled “Healthier Alternatives for a Happier Life,” and there is no sushi involved.

In the first event, which took place at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles last month, JETRO focused on four Japanese foods: kanten, konnyaku, hijiki (seaweed) and yuba (soy milk curd,or tofu skin). For many Japanese, these are considered comfort foods. Most Americans have probably never heard of them before, but that may soon change.

At the JETRO event, chef Suki Sugiura of the Beverly Hilton applied his multinational expertise to come up with innovative ways to incorporate these traditional Japanese ingredients in Spanish, Italian, Caribbean and American dishes.

Chilled Gazpacho With Kanten Jelly and Greens

Kanten, the seaweed gelatin also known as agar agar, is white and semi-translucent. It is sold in powdered form, dried in strips or as a long stick. Used mostly to make dessert jellies in Japan, dried kanten is soaked in water to soften and boiled until the solids or powder dissolve. What’s great about kanten is that it solidifies at room temperature. Because it is approximately 80 percent fiber, it gives the sensation of fullness when eaten.

Sugiura served molded gazpacho with greens as a composed salad. The gazpacho had a completely different texture as a result of substituting the seaweed gelatin, but if someone didn’t tell you, you may not have noticed this dish contained seaweed.

Konnyaku Rice

Konnyaku is made from elephant yam flour. It originally came from China and was used as medicine by the Buddhist monks. Comprised of minerals, dietary fiber and protein, konnyaku is 97 percent water and known to aid in normalizing blood sugar and cholesterol. Sugiura used “konnyaku rice” — konnyaku that has been produced to look like grains of rice. Konnyaku rice can be used like a filler or grain substitute. Sugiura combined it with regular rice and seasoned the dish with tomato and herbs to make a low-calorie paella. You can fill up on this dish without feeling cheated.

Hijiki Ragout Crostini With Tomato and Pine Nuts

Hijiki is a wild black sea vegetable that grows in the coast lines of Japan, Korea and China. It has been appreciated for its rich mineral content of calcium, magnesium and iron.

The Hijiki Ragout Crostini was the most Japanese-tasting of the dishes Sugiura made, although he didn’t use a drop of soy sauce in the seasoning. Who would have thought of a combination of hijiki sautéed with pine nuts, celery and onions?

Yuba Turkey Rolls With Tomato Rosemary Sauce

Yuba, or soy milk curd, is a delicacy in Japan, and comes fresh, semi-dried and dried. High in proteins and dietary fibers, it is often used in shojin style vegetarian cuisine, which is regarded as the foundation of Japanese cuisine. Shojin cuisine is prepared in Buddhist temples throughout Japan. The texture of yuba is slightly chewier than cabbage and milder in flavor. In Sugihara’s turkey rolls, yuba was used like a cabbage leaf to wrap the meat.

The fusion dishes that Sugiura made showed how ancient Japanese ingredients can travel beyond borders. If Americans can acquire a taste for these foods, as they did with sushi and tofu, kanten, konnyaku, hijiki and yuba may well become the country’s next healthy diet foods. 

Chef Suki Sugiura’s Chilled Hijiki Ragout Crostini with Tomato and Pine Nuts

Serves 3


⅔ cup hijiki
⅔ cup medium onion diced
½ teaspoon dried basil
½ cup diced celery
½ bay leaf
1 cup vegetable stock
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
½ cup roasted pine nuts
salt and pepper to taste
½ cup diced tomato, peeled and seeded
3 teaspoons olive oil
Italian bread, sliced and grilled with olive oil and garlic


  1. Soak hijiki in cold water for about 30 minutes and drain.
  2. Sauté onions and celery in olive oil until e transparent, add hijiki to and continue to sauté for 1 to 2 minutes.
  3. Add balsamic vinegar, vegetable stock and the ½ bay leaf.
  4. Cook slowly until the stock is almost all absorbed.
  5. Add the pine nuts, tomatoes, lemon juice and basil and salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Top grilled bread slices with mixture.

Sonoko Sakai is a Japanese freelance writer and film producer who divides her time between Tokyo and Santa Monica. She has contributed stories and recipes to the Los Angeles Times, the former Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Saveur and Bungei Shunju (Japan). She is passionate about making soba by hand and, with master chef Akila Inouye of the Tsukiji Soba Academy, has created MazuMizu to teach Japanese home-cooking in Japan and abroad.

Top photo: Chilled gazpacho with kanten jelly and greens

Photo and slideshow credits: Sonoko Sakai

Zester Daily contributor Sonoko Sakai is a Japanese food educator, writer and producer, as well as a mobile Japanese cooking teacher and soba maker, who divides her time between Los Angeles; Tehachapi, Calif.; and Tokyo. She has contributed stories and recipes to the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and Saveur. She is passionate about making soba by hand and is the founder of Common Grains. She is currently writing "Rice Craft, Adventures in Onigiri, Japanese Artful Fingerfood" (Chronicle Books -- to be published in fall of 2016).