This is a personal post about being lost in culinary hell and finding the path home again with a little help from my Japanese friends. In case someone out there might be in the same situation that I was in, I hope this helps and inspires.
If I sound like a self-holy, born-again foodie asshole please let me know. I hate those types of people.
In January 2005 when I quit my job, rented out my Copenhagen apartment and moved to Tokyo, I knew I was in for an adventure.
View across central Tokyo from a skyscraper. Spring 2005.
Back then, before leaving Denmark and my busy design day job, my diet consisted roughly of a dairy breakfast with lots of fiber and fruit, canteen lunches with meat, potatoes and cake for dessert, and then takeaway for dinner when coming home late from work. I've always hated cooking--I felt it was a waste of limited time, and the food was gone in two seconds in front of the TV anyway. And with a busy schedule it seemed fair to reward myself with expensive takeaway at the end of the day. Shops close early in Denmark and I always came home after that, so there was really no choice.
I ate everything and was only allergic to tomatoes and corn, as my doctor had tested and concluded. And I basically felt fine.
Until I came to Japan.
I don't know why, but my body started to change. Living in Shinjuku, actually ON Shinuku-dori, the main street through the most busy section in Japan, I started to get sick quite often and my immune system seemed to go spastic, which puzzled me as my diet had never been healthier.
Restaurant in Yokohama. We waited in line for 90 minutes as is customary on weekends in Japan. May 2005.
I had sushi almost every other day, lots of onigiri for lunch, fresh fish and rice from local street vendors and never ate a hamburger or drank soda. But I didn't feel well. The combination of constant street noise pollution, smelling garbage in the back streets, constant focus on consumerism and conformity, and a growing feeling of lostness on the big spaceship of Tokyo made me sick in my body and mind.
Street advertising for a comedy show DVD release, Shinjuku. Ads are everywhere--buy, consume, throw away and buy more! Summer 2005.
I missed open spaces, clean air, knowing what I was eating half the time (takes a lot of kanji skills to read food labels and restaurant menus) and not being treated like an alien or stupid gaijin tourist, which you always will in Japan, no matter if you've lived there for 20 years or one week. The country is so vast and concentrated with a full-bodied Japanese culture, that's just how it is with island nations. It gets tiring after a while.
So I caved in and returned home after 12 months of loving and loathing. Mainly because I was tired of falling sick.
It was great coming home to Copenhagen again, the clean air, the beautiful and thought out city planning, the bright nights of Scandinavia, seeing old friends and eating comfort food.
Copenhagen ice lakes. January 2006.
But something had changed. When I had a glass of milk my body instantly went berserk. And when I ate the normal dairy products that I used to, I got sick. I felt bloated, really tired and had pains in my stomach and chest. It seemed I had developed a dairy allergy. Dairy isn't a big part of Japanese food culture, and so I almost hadn't had milk or cheese for a whole year.
Gradually over the next years I started to feel worse. My body reacted similarly to other foods and by winter 2010 I was really desperate. Every meal, every snack made me sick. The doctors tested me for allergies several times, lactose checked me for intolerance twice and had me go through an unpleasant assortment of hospital tests. All with no diagnosis, everything seemed fine, all my stats were great and I wasn't officially sick in any way. So with no help from that front, I went to alternative clinics, spending over $2000 in tests and alternative medicine. Some of it really silly products, like eating zinc powder with a spoon. And all to no avail, nothing helped.
Then, in April 2011 I went to California to visit fellow Umamimart writers Yoko and Washi, who had relocated from Tokyo to Berkeley. I dreaded the flight and the food and as feared I spent 25 hours in transit hell. But I instantly fell in love with Berkeley when I arrived. Over the next days, Yoko and Washi kept to their daily schedule: eating Japanese food as they've always done. Rice, miso soup, fresh grilled fish, simple dishes and pure ingredients.
Cindy aka artist Wormfun, Yoko and a chewing Washi at fancy Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. April 2011.
And something weird slowly happened. I noticed it one day when out walking how great I suddenly felt. I couldn't remember the last time I'd felt so relaxed and painless, it was like I was on valium. After one week in Berkeley, Yoko and I started our planned roadtrip down south and after a day or two I started to feel bad again. We had roadside hamburgers, fries, sandwiches, nachos etc., which was so delicious that I ate it all, but at the same time I couldn't help but notice the sudden break from feeling good in Berkeley. Was it the water there? Was it the clean air? The famed organic pride of the hippie town?
One day when hiking in Grand Canyon, I approached Yoko with my dilemma. Being an expert on all foods in general (or anything else, for that matter), I asked if she had any idea what might be wrong with me. How come I felt so good when staying at her house? She suggested it might be my diet. Could it be that it was because I had mostly eaten Japanese food when being at home with them?
When I returned home to Copenhagen, the first thing I did was bike down to my local Asian market and buy all basic ingredients for Japanese cooking. I also found an old book I'd bought in 2006 about Japanese cooking: Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat by Naomi Moriyama. (Yes, I know it's geared towards women, but men can read it too).
That book, along with Yoko's advice has changed my life around completely. I have now spent the last two months eating 95% home cooked Japanese food every day.
And I feel great!
After so many years of not knowing what to eat and always being afraid of food, I now have a clear vision of what to eat without getting sick. It's truly a gift from the gods.
I still get sick instantly when eating a steak, a pizza, any bread, pasta, spicy food, fruit in general, cake or ice cream. I imagine it might have something to do with a mix of chemical sugars and fibers. But I have no real idea.
Funny how all the doctors, clinics and tests have fallen short--all I really needed was a friendly advice from Yoko, and study her column Japanify, here on Umamimart.
So, if you're a reader out there who's not feeling well when you eat "normal" regular food--I suggest you buy that aforementioned book and start experimenting with Japanese food. It's very easy on the body, fresh, not hard at all to cook--and everyone loves it.
I want to conclude this post with a an assortment of dishes I regularly cook now. My friends love it when I make it for them.
As we've all heard, breakfast is the most important meal of the day and to me that ain't no lie. I can't live without my homemade miso soup with lots of different vegetables and rice to start the day. When I go to bed at night I already look forward to that first, fresh slurp of steaming hot miso juice. Without sounding like an idiot, I honestly can't imagine people eating white bread, sugary donuts with butter and oily coffee each morning. How can that be good for anyone?? Might as well start the day with a big scoop of Ben & Jerry's.)
I boil two cups (approx 0.5 litres) of dashi and wakame seaweed.
Here I chopped up enoki mushrooms, spring onions, Danish champignons and organic carrots. The vegetables change according to what inspires me in the supermarket.
I always add one XL organic egg for some protein.
I also add chopped, firm tofu and bring it all to a boil, before adding the egg.
Finally when I remove the soup from the heat and the temperature has lowered, I add one spoon of white miso and one spoon of red miso.
If any reader knows where to find low sodium miso online, please let me know! Normal miso is very salty and I'd like to cut down on my salt intake. Unfortunately no one imports low sodium miso to Denmark. Actually you can barely find miso in Copenhagen, bleh.
Big, juicy Portobello mushrooms are my fave addition to the soup these days.
Need my bowl of rice for every meal. The umeboshi (pickled plum) is a rare treat, as they seldomly appear in Asian stores here and are very expensive.
Green, quickly blanched asparagus. Crunchy.
Freshly rolled sushi maki with cucumber, mackerel, avocado and Danish organic carrots. Soy dip on the side.
Afternoon snack: dried goji berries.
Big Danish Western Sea shrimps marinated in freshly squeezed ginger juice and rolled in panko (Japanese bread crumbs).
Lightly wok-fried in a little oil.
Adding shredded ginger for extra bite. Soy on the side as dip.
Wok-fried vegetables in miso sauce and roasted sesame seeds.
Twice-cooked saba, a la Yoko.
And finally one of my favourite dishes, a variation of goma-ae (a bit like Yoko's shira-ae, but without the tofu). I buy fresh, big leaves, pluck them and wash all the dirt off.
Bring lots of water to the boil and cook the spinach for 30 seconds, just enough to break the fibers but retaining its crunch.
Grind roasted sesame seeds with soy, a little mirin and a dab of water.
Mix into the cooled spinach and you're ready to eat!
Thank you to the Japanify kitchen and its Yoda Master Yoko, my friend in need.