The Rise of the Plant-Based Diet | Natural Gourmet Institute

The Rise of the Plant-Based Diet

Posted October 4, 2018

Can ‘shojin’ cuisine (Japanese temple food) set the world standard?

This article was written and translated from the original Japanese article in “Japan Class” Vol. 20, Toho Publishing House, published in September 2018 by Chef’s Training Program (CTP 281) student Maki Wennmann.

Sour memories – Umeboshi in Guatemala

It all started at La Aurora International Airport, Guatemala City in April 1999.

My daughter and I were being grilled by a local immigration officer. I was a 38-year-old radio show host from Japan who had enrolled in a Guatemalan university to study Spanish. With me was my teenage daughter who had no choice but to join this journey. The officer walked towards us and ordered me to open the luggage. Shazam! My clothes and linens and whatever else appeared bursting like ‘mochi’ out of a completely overloaded suitcase, which we had been only able to close the previous night by sitting on it.

The officer who had been looking for ‘something suspicious’ found a perfectly gift-wrapped box in the suitcase. “Oh no, please don’t!” It was my silent plead. The box contained the highest quality Japanese umeboshi from Kishyu, which I was planning to store in a safe place until the day I might feel homesick. The officer mercilessly ripped the wrapping paper, opened the package and asked, “what is this?” Assuming he might not know umeboshi, I answered, “food.” He did not seem to be convinced and so gave me an order. “Prove it.”

As probably the very first Japanese to eat umeboshi at this airport, I proudly picked one large fruit and put it in my mouth. A complex, robust, sour, salty, tangy, sweet flavor and deep umami instantly started jumping around on my palate, and its succulent flesh began melting in my mouth. “Wow! This sure is the highest quality umeboshi that money can buy,” I thought. The officer, possibly seduced by my blissful expression, became curious and could not resist to try one himself. Then, … I saw his face twisted into a grimace as if he had just eaten the sourest food on earth.

Who would have thought that nineteen years later, I would be in New York City studying for a chef diploma at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts (NGI), using such ingredients as umeboshi? NGI is not a Japanese cooking school. However, at this institute, tamari, rice vinegar, mirin, miso, kuzu, kanten, azuki and kombu have been regular pantry items since 1977, long before New Yorkers discovered ‘ramen’ or even ‘sushi rolls.’ NGI, probably the one and only ACCET accredited plant-based culinary school in the US, according to Ms. Carina Hayek, the school’s Director of Communications, was established by the late Dr. Ann Marie Colbin who studied ‘macrobiotics.’ In the past 41 years, more than 2600 chefs from thirty countries have graduated from the institute, and about one hundred students are studying year-round in the Chef’s Training Program to become future culinary experts.

Will kuzu save the world!?

“What is macrobiotics?” I asked Chef Elliott Prag, the school’s Chef Instructor and the Curriculum Development Manager. He calls macrobiotics a practice, lifestyle, and diet predicated on thousands of years of knowledge from Chinese medicine and traditional Japanese dietary and healing practices. It was brought and taught to the West by George Ohsawa (Japanese name: Yukikazu Sakurazawa), Michio Kushi, and Herman Aihara. Macrobiotics looks at food through the lens of the Dao – the universal manifestation and balance of yin and yang. The emphasis is on foods that are whole, local, seasonal and organic – which defines the core mission of the NGI. The diet has a strong influence from its origin, Japan, using brown rice, vegetables of every variety, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, seaweed, miso, tamari, brown rice vinegar, kuzu and of course, umeboshi.

Chef Elliott also highlights medicinal aspects of foods. When there is someone in the school who is not feeling well, the chef immediately picks up a small sauce pan and fixes ‘kuzu-yu’ for the patient. Kuzu helps digestion, calms anxiety, supports the immune system, and alkalizes the PH level and thus even works wonders in recovering from a hangover. I remember my Japanese grandmother always made kuzu-yu for me when I was coming down with a cold. I almost forgot this wonderful tradition.

Chef David Bouley, owner of the popular New York restaurant Bouley also mentioned kuzu in his acceptance speech in 2015 when he was appointed as the Japanese Culinary Ambassador by the Japanese Government. He called kuzu a miracle food that would revive our health and revitalize the culinary industry as well. He declared that it would be his mission to promote such Japanese ingredients as kuzu to the West.

For more information about kuzu and other pantry items including miso (enzyme rich), umeboshi (heals acid indigestion), gomashio (great cure for a hangover), please read Chef Elliott’s post on the NGI website. There you can learn about different NGI recipe ideas as well. For example, white miso does not only make miso soup but adds Parmesan-like flavor to your risotto and makes your vegan spread cream cheesy. This works well for dieters and vegans alike.

‘Vegan’ is a diet/practice/practitioner which/who avoids all animal foods including meat, fish, eggs, dairy and honey. Strict vegans even avoid all animal products including leather, silk or cosmetics tested on animals. By contrast, some ‘vegetarians’ eat dairy or eggs. ‘Pescatarians’ eat fish but no meat, ‘flexitarians’ eat mainly plant-based food and are flexible enough to enjoy occasional animal protein. ‘Whole foods, plant-based’ focuses on healthy, sustainable, ecological and unprocessed foods with minimal or no animal protein, which sums up NGI’s culinary philosophy.

Plant-based is the no.1 food trend in 2018

The New York based restaurant consultancy agency Baum and Whitman predicts that plant-based dining will emerge as the no.1 food trend in 2018. Earlier this year, Forbes ran an article which argues that “veganizing business is the key to success in 2018.” Vegan living is indeed starting to enter the mainstream in recognition of its positive impact on sustainability and animal welfare without the need to sacrifice taste or style. Illustrating that veganism is no longer considered ‘weird’ or ‘extreme,’ an interesting comparison comes to mind: Yoga, which is no longer just popular among spiritual people or India aficionados. Yoga is ‘now,’ the spandex for every ‘body’.

Let the numbers speak for themselves. The vegan population in the US tripled between 2014 and 2017. In Portugal, the vegetarian population is four times higher in 2017 than ten years ago. Plant-based dairy alternatives are expected to represent 40% of the combined total of dairy and dairy alternative beverages in the US by 2020, according to the research firm Packaged Facts. The company predicts that new types of dairy alternatives will soon find markets, including barley, hemp, pea, flax and quinoa. While plant-based ‘milks’ are increasing the market shares, cow’s milk sales are declining. Australia’s largest supplier of dairy products, Murray Goulburn, announced a 22% drop in milk sales in 2017. Meanwhile Elmhurst, one of the longest-running dairies on the US East Coast, decided in 2017 to switch to producing solely plant-based ‘milks’ after 92 years.

The FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) in its “Dietary Guideline and Sustainability,” recommends a mostly plant-based diet with a focus on seasonal and local foods, a reduction of highly-processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages, and to minimize food waste. The Canadian government also recommends a plant-based diet in its food guide. In addition, more and more celebrities, such as Ariana Grande and Novak Djokovic are publicly advocating a plant-based or vegan diet. We have seen the creation of vegan silk and leather alternatives made from pineapple waste, apple peels or mushrooms. Tesla, the American electric car manufacturer, responding to the demand for cruelty-free materials, has reportedly removed animal-based leather as an option for its seats. The Irish beer company Guinness banned fish bladders from its filtration process and became vegan friendly. Wait a second! I had no idea that fish bladders were used in beer brewing!

Just to make it clear that I am neither a vegan nor a vegetarian. I am not trying to convert you either. I am very much aware of the importance of DHA, EPA in fatty fish or essential minerals in bone broth. But I would like us to be aware of the need to shift to more sustainable diets and food systems as its benefits are becoming increasingly evident. More and more countries have started to incorporate sustainability considerations into their food policies, and consumers are becoming increasingly informed and educated on nutrition, animal welfare, food safety and overall environmental footprint. We feel better when we know where our foods come from and how they end up on the dining table.

Japanese farmers in Brazil

During the past decades, Brazil, like many middle-income countries, has moved from addressing challenges related to malnutrition to the challenge of obesity, which is now affecting one in seven Brazilians. As obesity is considered ‘handicapped’ in Brazil, it is enforced by law that public facilities, including public transportation, be equipped for the obese. For example, during the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, 4,750 extra-wide seats were reportedly built into the stadiums.

To tackle increasing obesity and related chronic diseases, the government released a food guide in 2014, encouraging people to make natural or minimally processed food the basis of their diet, and control the portion of fats, salt and sugar. Inspired by the movement, four cities in the State of Bahia have pledged to serve only plant-based meals in school cafeterias by the end of 2019. For the first time in history, these schools will reduce meat, dairy and egg consumption by 25 percent per semester in order to reach their 100 percent plant-based goal. The change will impact over 23 million meals a year.

In October 2018, Brazil will host Latin America’s biggest vegetarian festival “Vegefest” followed by conferences for medical practitioners. It is an interesting coincidence by the way, that at NGI, the biggest group of foreign students are Brazilians. The most famous alumna is probably the food TV show host and cookbook author Bela Gil, a daughter of the famous singer Gilberto Gil. She also uses such Japanese ingredients as kabocha and azuki in her recipes.

When we talk about a plant-based diet in Brazil, we should not forget the contribution of Japanese immigrants who built the foundation of vegetable farming in the largest country in South America. Eating a variety of vegetables was not very common in Brazil until Japanese immigrants arrived in the early 20th century. At first the Japanese started working in coffee plantations where the workers were needed after the abolishment of slavery. They then gradually became pioneers in the country’s agriculture and farming. Today, an estimated 1.9 million Japanese Brazilians create the biggest Japanese community outside of Japan.

‘Shojin’ cuisine in New York

Japan has a long tradition of vegan cuisine called ‘shojin’ or temple food. Chef Hiroki Abe was appointed in April 2018 as the executive chef of Kajitsu, a Michelin star ‘shojin’ restaurant in New York City. Kajitsu defines ‘shojin’ as a vegetarian cooking (vegan as diet) that originates in Zen Buddhism. Although it does not use meat or fish as ingredients, shojin is regarded as the foundation of all Japanese cuisine, especially ‘kaiseki’, the Japanese version of haute cuisine. Kaiseki is a multi-course meal in which fresh, seasonal ingredients are prepared in ways that enhance the flavor and served on beautiful plating. All these characteristics originates from shojin cuisine, which to this day is still prepared in Buddhist temples all over Japan.

Kajitsu follows the ‘cha kaiseki (tea kaiseki)’ format. In order to prepare the guest’s stomach to be ready for the climax – a cup of strong green tea, several different rice dishes (carbohydrates) are served throughout the meal. At Kajitsu, menus change every month incorporating seasonal vegetables. For example, the featured items of July were corn, ‘togarashi’ (Japanese spicy red pepper) and ‘mizu-nasu’ (Japanese eggplant). These fresh organic vegetables are grown by their contracted farmers in New York and New Jersey. Chef Abe, who says that Japanese vegetables are succulent, crisp, and rich in umami, also tries to incorporate New York local ingredients into shojin cuisine: roasted beats blended with umeboshi flesh, rhubarb jam added to quick pickled vegetables, fried and simmered Jerusalem artichokes, to name but a few. Chef Abe is not a vegan or vegetarian. His dream is to promote Japanese cuisine through shojin as the foundation of all Japanese cuisine.

Everybody loves Japanese kabocha

I started cooking with ‘chu-chu’ (pronounced as /sh-shoe/) in Brazil when daikon was not available and became a huge fan. Chu-chu commonly known in the US as ‘chayote’ belongs to the squash family, light green color, ergonomic shape, baseball size, and inexpensive, usually less than a dollar per fruit. ‘Chu-chu’ also means ‘a lovely girl’ in Brazil – you hear men calling their loved ones ‘my chu-chu’. Coincidentally, ‘daikons’ are referred to women’s legs (strong legs in particular) in Japan.

When we roasted several kinds of squash in the class, my American classmates were impressed with the sweet and robust umami flavor and creamy texture of kabocha. For many students, kabocha was a new find. I asked them if they knew any other Japanese vegetables, and they named shiitake, edamame, shishito, and daikon. Impressively, all my classmates have miso and umeboshi in their pantry to create vegan ‘cream cheese’ flavor or detox remedy after a hangover.

New ingredients, recipes, cooking techniques, endless research and experiments. Culinary studies are so deep that you can’t see the bottom of it. Why did I want to study culinary arts at the age 57? Because I was in the middle of writing a food essay and needed more culinary knowledge and credentials. I chose NGI because a plant-based diet was something new to me which made me curious. I have worked in professional kitchens and have been cooking for my own family since I was a child. I thought I knew how to cook, but the more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew about cooking. The chef training was much more challenging and rewarding than I had expected, and it certainly showed me so many new aspects of food.

Cook’s journey continues

 From the beginning of my story you can tell that when I see umeboshi, I think of Guatemala rather than Japan. The immigration officer, after perhaps the ‘sourest’ experience of his life, immediately let my daughter and I enter the country. We managed to close the suitcase again by sitting on it, caught a cab and checked into an apartment hotel located in the heart of Guatemala City. We did not yet have any friends or neighbors. All we had was each other, overloaded suitcases, an opened umeboshi box, and a box of readymade curry roué blocks!

Shortly after checking in, we went on our first grocery shopping and got onions, carrots and potatoes to make Japanese curry, our version of comfort food. From a cook’s point of view, curry is one of the dishes that you can make relatively easily wherever you are in the world since the main ingredients – onions, carrots and potatoes are widely available. You just need to add your curry spices. For our first dinner in Guatemala, I used the curry roué blocks from the House brand which I had packed in the same suitcase.

My curry cheered up my daughter who had come along on this adventure without questioning anything. A remarkable teenager, she is now a successful fashion designer in New York City and makes delicious curry herself. But now thinking back at the airport scene, I must say it had been very close. The immigration officer could have found the curry roué instead and asked me to eat it. I was really lucky that it was umeboshi after all. (The end)

Maki Wennmann is a New York based Japanese writer. She was a top radio show host in Japan in the 90’s. Since 1999, she has lived in Guatemala, Brazil, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and New York, producing radio shows and cooking/baking. In 2007, she joined the United Nations and worked as a Social Events Coordinator for the Secretary-General. She holds a BA in Literature from Rikkyo University and a MA in International Relations from Brooklyn College. Currently, she is enrolled in the Chef Training Program at the Natural Gourmet Institute.