Let’s pretend that you care about your diet. Let’s also pretend that when I talk about ‘your diet’ you understand that I don’t mean that you’re on a diet – whatever Atkins, Seaweed, Columbian Duck Egg Every Thursday After A Full Moon With A Cup Of Horse Piss And A Stick In Your Ear fad is doing the rounds at the moment – but that I’m just using the word to mean whatever it is that you habitually choose to shovel into your mouth to provide energy. Well done, Pretend You, you’re now doing better than at least three-quarters of people who live in the First World.
Let us then also pretend that you’re vaguely conscious of your food’s energy values and have made a rough but genuine effort to calculate your daily calorific needs. This comes out at 2000, because it’s probably close enough and, more importantly, is a nice round number to make the maths easier.
So, you now have 2000 calories to ‘spend’ every day. There are certain things that you have to buy with these calories: Essential fatty acids, some vitamins and minerals, dietary fibre and the like. Your body can’t make these things for itself so if you aren’t getting them in your food, you aren’t getting them at all. Plus, you’re not a total puritan so you’re going to spend a bit on stuff you enjoy; a glass of beer, cheese, cake, whatever.
Finally, let’s get properly imaginative and say that these aren’t calories you’re spending but real money. Yen, pounds, dollars or whichever currency has most resonance for (real) you. I shall indicate this generic currency, not with the usual ₤, $, or ¥ symbol, but with a smiley face, because it amuses me ☺.
You have now been tasked to buy several things that you must have. Seriously, these aren’t optional and if you don’t get them you’ll get sick and die, or at the very least scurvy and constipation. You also want to live a little and spend some of your budget of ☺2000 on a few niceties, because there’s no point in being all grim and po-faced about stuff all the time. Ready? Let’s go pretend shopping!
Ah. No, wait. Sorry, I forgot to say, first what I want you to do is take about ☺600 and chuck it out the window. Defenestrate it good and proper; burn it, wipe your arse with it all I care (though that may prove difficult, as we shall see). Or, if you’re feeling really bloody minded, go and buy a bowl of white rice to have with each of your daily meals.
God, but white rice is such a nothing food. I genuinely love Japanese food. I know it can go a bit heavy on the whole soy+mirin+sugar angle, but I like those flavours so I don’t mind so much. Plus it’s not all like that and at its best I’d happily rank Japanese cuisine alongside any other in the world.
I know I’m from Britain, so some of you may be questioning my qualifications in this regard. “British food is shit,” after all. But I’m here to tell you that’s a lie. British food is categorically not shit. A proper roast is a thing of beauty because bloody meat is what roast potatoes were invented for; a well made treacle pudding is glorious because hot + sticky = fun; and Stilton is indisputably the best cheese in the world because Stilton. I think that should be fairly clear to everyone, no?
So British food is not bad, in fact it’s occasionally superb. It is however, frequently, depressingly, embarrassingly, made and served like shit. The problem is not the theory but the execution. The content is fine but the delivery sucks. It’s possible to eat incredibly well in the UK, but you’re going to pay through the fucking nose in order to do so. The low-range stuff is slurry and the mid-range is nonexistent.
Maybe that’s what I like about Japan. It’s not the food per se, but the fact that if you live near a decent sized city it’s reasonably easy to eat out reasonably well on a reasonable budget, in a way that just isn’t possible back home.
This can cause problems on the now depressingly rare evenings my wife and I can now eat out. I usually like to go for higher-end Japanese stuff, whereas she prefers French, or at least the Japanese interpretation of French. To be fair, sometimes this isn’t far off if you’re willing to stump up a bit of cash, but I’ve got fairly recent French ancestry and while I’m no expert I spent enough time at my grandmother’s dinner table to know that sometimes a miss is as good as a mile.
Now my wife’s on maternity leave so she’s doing the bulk of the day-to-day cooking. This, unavoidably, involves a lot of rice. Not white rice though. One of the many things I love about my wife is that she doesn’t automatically assume that The Japanese Way is inherently more superior just because it’s The Japanese Way. Well, she does, but is more open to persuasion by things like ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ than many other Japanese people I’ve met.
When our eldest was weaning, I suggested that maybe there were better things to be giving him than, essentially, very runny mochi. This was quickly dismissed, but after the second time the boy went several days without filling his nappy before, with loudly obvious discomfort, passing a turn the size and consistency of a golf ball, she started to entertain the idea that maybe something with just a touch more fibre might be of benefit. It’s porridge all the way now. My Celtic fraction is so proud.
|A half is not a fraction in Scotland, it's an embarrassment.|
A good general rule of thumb is that the darker a food’s colour is, the better it will be for you. It’s not infallible, obviously. I’m not about to claim that chocolate cake is better than yogurt, for example. But given the choice between two similar foodstuffs the darker will normally be healthier, or at least less unhealthy. So brown rice is better – the brown contains at least a hint of vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Scrape that off and you’re left with almost entirely empty calories. Seriously, you could achieve a very similar nutritional effect to eating a bowl of white rice by just swallowing a teaspoon of sugar every five minutes for an hour or two, and hopefully that doesn’t strike anyone as a good idea.
And you know what’s better still? Proper vegetables. Things with leaves and roots. One of the most insidious side effects of Japan’s disproportionately influential farming lobby, and the protectionist, pork-barrel policies it begets, is the ludicrously high price of fruit and vegetables.
As a fully paid up member of the environmental movement, I have to state here that local food production is usually (but not always) the better option. Food miles are not a trivial concept. Fruit and veg cost more here because they’re not imported, and the cost of living and therefore production is higher. You’ll also hear that there’s not that much space for agriculture so there’s inevitably a premium on fresh produce, and that’s also true to an extent. But what exacerbates this problem a hundredfold is that the vast majority of what little arable land Japan has is dedicated to the production of, yep, rice.
It’s one of those awful self-fulfilling prophecies of which we’re all so fond. People eat rice because they’re Japanese, and because the alternatives are disproportionately expensive, and those alternatives are expensive because everyone eats rice because they’re Japanese.
If it were any other substance, or any other more specific than ‘food and water’ – and people were unthinkingly and automatically consuming it three times a day every day simply because they felt they needed to you wouldn’t call it a cultural trait, you’d call it an addiction. Japan is addicted to white rice and there's no chance of it kicking the habit. Not Twelve Step programme, no Cold Turkey. It’s no coincidence that heroin also causes constipation.