Bebe Taian: Book Review: Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat, by Naomi Moriyama

June 9, 2012

Book Review: Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat, by Naomi Moriyama

Another one of the books I picked up from my local library. This time, I'm on a quest to learn to cook Japanese food. When I was at my homestay mothers' house, it was like magic: delicious food would just appear, mysterious and so, so unbelievably good, but so radically different from anything I knew at home. Before, I had decided that the ingredients could only be obtained from specialty markets, and they were too expensive and foreign to mess with myself. Now, I think differently: I must learn the secret to Japanese cooking! So, a rotating stack of cookbooks is finding it's way to my apartment. Borrowed, of course. I couldn't afford all the books I'd really want, and it's nice to read them for free before deciding whether or not to pay.

"Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat" - Naomi Moriyama & William Doyle

The first objection I had was to the title. Moriyama is a marketing consultant, so she likely knows that the title is her headline. It's meant to gain as much attention as possible. And what do American women fear? Being old, and being fat. We are objects which should never become outdated or outmoded, on an eternal pursuit of youth and therefore beauty... and we should never be heavier than a twig; it means that we're piggish, slovenly, crude, and ugly.

It's true that the Japanese diet is infinitely better than the American one, for a variety of reasons (including the relatively low use of artificial flavourings, colourings, and preservatives in their food), but that does not mean that Japanese women never gain weight or show signs of aging. I've been there. I've seen more than a few 'overweight' girls, compared to our standards. You know, 'normal-sized' women who over here would be demonized for being too big. So I know the title is BS right off the bat. Even so, I figured that the book is pretty thick, and low on photos. It must have something more to say than the usual cookbooks, and I found the personal stories to be worth the read, so I checked it out.

There's a little over 260 pages, including the index and acknowledgements.

Opening the book is a section on Japan and the "Global Obesity Epidemic", detailing how Japan stacks up against the US and others in various categories, such as percentages of obese people per population, how much it costs in terms of health expenses a year, and various health problems associated with being overweight. It also looks at longevity rates, comparing Japan to several other countries. This raw data is fine, but correlation does not necessarily equal causation, and I find fault with those who do not understand the studies but use them to back up their point. Fortunately, the book is not necessarily a diet book in the sense of "you can only eat this and tally points or else you fail". It's more of a "here are personal anecdotes and how to cook some stuff that might help you be healthier".

There is no sushi-making involved. It's about every-day kitchen food. Portion sizes in Japan are mentioned. If you've never been there, be prepared if you go. A 'large' coffee at Starbucks in Japan is about half the size of one here! Such are Japanese portions. It isn't that they eat less, necessarily, but rather they seem to eat a little more often, and eat sweets and fried foods way less often, and in smaller quantities. Grilled, boiled, or raw foods seem to be most popular.

A list of basic ingredients is included for the recipes, and some suggestions if you don't have a wok or a proper rice cooker. Some of the ingredients themselves are broken down for those of us unfamiliar with them (like me!), including the difference between Japanese rice and regular white rice, what bonito flakes are, some different tea types and their distinctions, and different types of miso paste.

There are about 36 recipes listed, including one of my favourites: goma-ae! It's a seasoned spinach, which is excellent with teriyaki chicken or kushiyaki beef.

My only other complaint is that the Japanese diet outlined here is very dependent on rice and noodles. This is fine for some people, but when a vast number of people in the US are gaining weight because of abundant starches in our diets (thanks, governmental rigging of the grain industry!) causing us to become diabetic (and therefore unable to lose the weight, as the body stops recognizing the extra fat), what works for Japan may not necessarily apply here. Overall, I think the recipes sound great, and admittedly could have used some colour photos to accompany them, but a little less emphasis on 'filler foods' could have been noted. However, there is no reason you can't avoid eating rice and noodles in smaller portions, filling up the 'void' with delicious veggies, soups, and some good protein sources like fish or chicken.

If you are not in for recipes interspersed with food-related recollections from the author's life, don't bother with this one. If you like cookbooks with photos, this one is not for you. But if you do like the insight into someone's life in Japan, and you're looking for some starter recipes and tips on adapting them to your own kitchen, pick up a copy from your local bookstore or library. If this is the only book your library carries on Japanese cooking, there is a recipe index in the back so you can skip straight to it and get cooking.

And also, if you are well-versed in American food politics and weight-related health topics, try not to ::facepalm:: too hard. You might break your nose. The book is probably geared with the assumption that (like Japanese in general) most people are skinny and *become* fat due to poor fast-food laden diets, as opposed to the reality: a mix of genetic predispositions, fatphobia (the notion that a person CAN'T be healthy AND built bigger at the same time), poverty, and terrible health/food safety policies for the masses.

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