Longevity Reigns with the Plant-Based Flavors of Okinawa

Grilled sea bream with vegetablesOkinawa is an island, south of Japan and northeast of Taiwan. It is known as a “blue zone” because it is home to the oldest living population of women in the world. The number of “centenarians” here (people who live to be 100 or older) is higher than many other regions in the world. This tight knit community values relationships with family, friends, and having a purpose in life. Okinawans have low rates of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes compared to most other countries, which is likely due to their mostly plant-based diet, lifelong activity levels, and community social support. Cuisine here features nutrient-rich foods like root vegetables and stir fries with a variety of colorful vegetables, herbs, fish, and tofu in their meals.

Dashi soupDashi
A stock made from fish and kelp, dashi serves as the foundation for Japanese broth and soups. While this traditional Japanese stock does contain high amounts of sodium, it also offers a good amount of Vitamins C and A, as well as iron and calcium for a nutrient-rich base to many dishes. Dashi serves as a savory base for soba and other noodles dishes that may include fish, pork, green onions and vegetables like carrots and peppers.

Fresh, dry and pickled ginger on a black matte stone surface.Pickled Ginger
In natural medicine, ginger may be used for a variety of gastric issues such as helping to ease an upset stomach, reduce gas, and also may be used to treat snake bites, act as a pain reliever, and even help treat toothaches. It serves as an important flavor in Japanese and Okinawan cuisine, often used as a garnish to soba bowls as Beni Shouga, or grated red pickled ginger.

Close-up of a wooden spoon and bowl containing sesame seedsSesame Seed
Medicinally, sesame seeds may be used to help treat a wide variety of conditions such as anemia, arthritis, high blood pressure, obesity, and may even help to improve heart and brain health. Find both sesame seeds and oils as important flavoring in Japanese cuisine, it is often a base for dressings and marinades in the region. Find sesame seeds in spinach or seaweed salad, in traditional-style dressings with soy sauce and vinegar base, and even in Okinawan-style donuts that are fried and served as a snack or dessert.

Japanese basil (shiso) in a bamboo basketShiso Leaves
A relative to mint, shiso leaves are used for their antibacterial effects as they contain antioxidant phytoncides that help to prevent the growth of bacteria in food. Rich in nutrients, shiso is used throughout Japan in sushi recipes but also to give umeboshi (pickled plums) their vibrant red color, or in a salad. It can be used as both a garnish to decorate seafood dishes or as a main component of a dish, included as a salad-type vegetable.

Also known as Japanese Horseradish, Wasabi may be used medically to treat the common cold, cancer, stomach pains, diarrhea, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Wasabi is a cruciferous vegetable (like broccoli or cauliflower) with a very spicy, potent flavor. It is often served in Japan and Okinawa as a flavorful garnish for seafood or mixed into a sauce and used as a dressing or dip.

Blue Zones. Okinawa. https://www.bluezones.com/exploration/okinawa-japan/. Accessed 5/17/21.
The Spruce Eats. Dashi. https://www.thespruceeats.com/dashi-japanese-soup-stock-2031456. Updated 7/14/20. Accessed 5/11/21.
Natural Medicine Database. Ginger. https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com/databases/food,-herbs-supplements/professional.aspx?productid=961. Updated 12/16/20. Accessed 5/11/21.
Natural Medicine Database. Sesame. https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com/databases/food,-herbs-supplements/professional.aspx?productid=1514. Updated 5/3/21. Accessed 5/11/21.
The Spruce Eats. Shiso. https://www.thespruceeats.com/what-are-shiso-leaves-5112607. Updated 3/9/21. Accessed 5/11/21.
Natural Medicine Database. Wasabi. https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com/databases/food,-herbs-supplements/professional.aspx?productid=1525. Updated 11/30/20. Accessed 5/11/21.
Learn Okinawa A to Z. Benishouga. https://www.okistyle.com/a2z/?p=1916#:~:text=Most%20of%20Okinawans%20like%20to,for%20free%20as%20they%20like. Accessed 5/20/21.

About Ginger Hultin, MS RDN CSO

Ginger Hultin, MS, RD, CSO, LDN, is a health writer and owner of Champagne Nutrition specializing in integrative health and whole food-based nutrition. She serves as Immediate Past President for the Chicago Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Chair-Elect of the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group and is a Media Representative for the Illinois Academy. Read Ginger's blog, Champagne Nutrition, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. Ginger Hultin MS RD CSO LDN gingerhultin@hotmail.com | @GingerHultinRD Chair-Elect, Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group ChampagneNutrition.com  
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