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Health And Well-Being: Lessons From My Japanese Mother

A mother's wisdom continues to shape and guide a daughter's well-being. Credit: Copyright 2017 Hiroko Shimbo

A mother's wisdom continues to shape and guide a daughter's well-being. Credit: Copyright 2017 Hiroko Shimbo

Rereading my mother’s fax-letter dated Dec. 18, 2011, made me rethink how I should cook a particular dish I was making at the end of last year. I was preparing numerous Osechi Ryori (New Year’s feast) dishes for our New Year’s open house, during which we received 60-plus guests. I had soaked black soybeans for a dish called kuromame, sweet, simmered black beans. This is an indispensable item in the New Year’s feast because it allegedly brings good health for the entire year.

While juggling dozens of tasks in preparation for the feast, I sat down for a few minutes with a cup of hot tea and my mother’s old fax-letter, part of my pile of repeatedly used recipes from her. My mother, 84 at the time of the writing, shared with me about her kuromame dish: “In the past my generation cooked beans for the dish in the way so that the soybeans had a wrinkled skin when they are done. This reminds us of reaching old age, and celebrating and cherishing a happy and healthy old age with family members.” I smiled as I continued reading. “Today women don’t want to get wrinkles on their face, so the way to cook the black soybeans has changed — a smooth and stretched skin at the end of cooking is desired.”

I had been one of the converts. By cooking beans the new way, I had forgotten the point of serving this specific dish at the new year. So I went back to my mother’s way, and the kuromame at our feast was presented with the venerable wrinkled skin.

Eating for your well-being

A faxed letter with notes on a traditional Japanese recipe that continues to inspire today. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

A faxed letter with notes on a traditional Japanese recipe that continues to inspire today. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

Certain things my mother taught me have deeply nourished me both mentally and physically, becoming a part of my being. This wisdom, related to our well-being and relationships, is worth sharing.

Those who want to achieve healthy well-being should consider Hara-hachibu. Hara means “stomach” and hachibu means “80 percent.” Hara-hachibu literally translates to “eat until your stomach is 80 percent full.”

It is scientifically proven it takes about 20 minutes for our brain to receive the message we are full after eating. If we eat slowly, we get the message at the right time and stop eating even when we want to eat a few bites more. On the contrary, if we eat too quickly, by the time our brain sends us the message, we have probably eaten too much.

The practice of Hara-hachibu only requires self-discipline to eat slowly and the courage to say “no” to more food. When I was small, my mother conditioned me to not overeat. Now I am grateful I am in control and receiving the benefit. Hara-hachibu, by the way, does not rob you of the enjoyment of eating. Rather, it improves the joy of eating.

I eat fairly well, treating food as blessings from nature that keep me healthy and energetic. Eating well means I do not often indulge in expensive, rich foods. My eating habits rely on the concept of Ishoku Dogen. Ishoku means “food and medicine,” and Dogen means “shares the same source.” This literally means good-quality foods maintain our mental and physical health and help us to get well. Conversely, bad-quality foods destroy our health.

I learned Ishoku Dogen from my mother, who cooked for my father’s surgical patients at his clinic in our home. My mother’s carefully thought-out and well-liked dishes facilitated the patients’ quick, smooth recoveries.

When I was young and I left some items on my plate, my mother knew how to urge me to finish. “Nokori mono niwa fukuga aru” was the phrase she repeated at such times. Nokori mono means “leftovers,” and niwa fukuga aru translates to “brings you good fortune.” When my mother repeated this to me, she was telling me, “If you finish what is on your plate, good fortune will come to you.” She did not want to waste precious food, and at the same time, she wanted to teach me how to eat. Yes, times have changed, but if anyone needs this “trick” for their little ones or even yourself, try this in combination with Hara-hachibu. My mother, now 90, is a testament that these methods work.

Whenever my mother enjoyed something seasonal at the peak of its flavor and nutrition, she told me we are lucky and should cherish the moment, because after consuming it we will never find exactly the same thing again. Meeting and relating to people falls under the same philosophy. Each time we meet someone, we should treat that moment in the relationship as the final encounter. In this way we show respect for each other. The philosophy is called Ichi-go-ichi-e, which literally means “each personal encounter occurs only one time.” So from my mother I have learned both how to eat and how to interact with my fellow beings, lessons that can perhaps be useful to all of us.

My Mother’s Kuromame

Kuromame. Credit: Copyright 2017 Hiroko Shimbo

Kuromame. Credit: Copyright 2017 Hiroko Shimbo

Prep time: About 15 minutes

Cook time: 5 hours

Total time: 5 hours, 15 minutes

Yield: 10 to 20 servings, depending on serving size


10 ounces black soybeans

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons shoyu (soy sauce)

1 teaspoon sea salt


1. Rinse the beans and soak in water for 30 minutes. Remove any broken beans and drain.

2. In a large pot, add 6 cups water, sugar, soy sauce and sea salt and bring it to a boil, dissolving the sugar. Let the liquid cool, then add the soybeans. Cover the pot with a lid and refrigerate overnight.

3. Place the pot over medium heat and bring it to a simmer. Remove foam that floats to the top of the water. When all the foam is gone, turn heat to low and cook, partially covered, for 5 hours. During cooking add water as needed so the beans are always barely covered by the cooking liquid. Let the beans cool in the cooking liquid.

Zester Daily contributor Hiroko Shimbo, a widely acclaimed chef-consultant and Japanese cooking instructor, is the author of "Hiroko's American Kitchen," "The Japanese Kitchen" (published as "La Cocina Japonesa" in Spain) and "The Sushi Experience."

  • Sally 2·20·17

    Wonderful story!!!

    • Hiroko Shimbo 2·21·17

      Thank you and please spread the word of harahachibu, ishoku dogen and ichigo ichie.

  • Elizabeth Khoury 2·20·17

    Mama always knows best! Thanks for sharing that great story.

  • Jenny Kanno 2·21·17

    Hi Hiroko-san,
    Nice story – My mom also teaches me her osechi recipes.
    In the kuromame picture, is that konyaku cubes? How much do you use?

    • Hiroko Shimbo 2·22·17

      I do not have ‘this is it’ amount. Every year it changes, but I use 2 packs (2 slices/blocks) for 10 ounces dried black soybeans.

  • Ilana Sharlin Stone 2·22·17

    So many wonderful lessons about food and life here – which are, of course, so interrelated! Thanks for sharing this illuminating and beautiful story, Hiroko.

    • Hiroko Shimbo 2·22·17

      IIana, thank you very much for your comment. My mother will be so glad to hear it.

  • Mary mcGowan 3·28·17

    I have a large bottle of sake unopened. I have had it for 10 years and was wondering if it is still good for drinking. Was going to dispose it but would much prefer drinking it! Appreciate your advice!

    • Hiroko Shimbo 3·28·17

      In the past we preserved un-sold sake for couple of years. We also have Koshu, aged sake. If your sake is stored at dark, cool place without huge temperature difference in the past 10 years, it is OK to drink. When you opened the bottle sake shows slight brown color. This is a natural chemical reaction and no harm. Sake may taste a bit like a sherry….

      If the sake is the type – namazake, nigori, genshu – these types requires refrigeration. If they are not refrigerated, you better not drinking it

      Curious to know the result!
      Best, Hiroko