JAPANESE FOOD: A Cheap and Healthy Eating Guide

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By Claire D'hooghe | May 18, 2016

Eating healthy japan: A typical sushi spread

Eating Healthy Japan: A typical sushi spread.

If you’ve been to Japan, you already know. If not, I doubt you’ll be surprised that Japanese food actually made in Japan is Next Level Shit. When Australians look for a cheap, quick meal we see (Australians, please excuse my stereotyping here) meat pies, everything avocado (including sushi), fresh sandwiches, and, of course, an invasion of burger/Mexican joints.

In Japan, like most of Asia, it’s a completely different scene. Common menu items, available from specialised stores – sometimes with only 4 seats, sometimes with none – include soup and noodles, or rice and meat, commonly paired with miso, tea and mountain or sea vegetables.

But what should you eat when you want something cheap, filling and relatively-healthy? Well whether you’re partying hard or want to experience the everyday Japanese lifestyle, we’ve taken a look at a few meal options and what you can expect if you’re looking to be, somewhat, eating healthy in Japan.

But First, Japan’s Sensible Diet

On first glance, Japan’s every-man food doesn’t rate high on the healthy scale; the refined, white-wheat in noodles, super salty broths and sauces, plenty of fried foods and sugar added to savoury dishes. Not to mention the use of MSG.

However, most Japanese have this under control; they’re experts at balance. Portion sizes are small and variety is key. Each meal will include a variety of dishes; seasonal vegetables and mushrooms, fermented foods like miso or natto, and often a seafood element. Keep in mind, good dairy and bread is rare as hen’s teeth in Japan.

The naturally high-in-fibre, low calorie Japanese diet is great, but what about when you’re hungover, needing fuel, don’t want to spend much and wandering the street aimlessly searching – Which door do you enter? To help you out in those dire times, we look at five options and rate their Price, Heft (how full it leaves you), and Health (1=low/5=high).

🍵 Ramen

Eating Healthy Japan: Delicious bowl of miso ramen. Photo via flickr

Delicious bowl of hot, salty miso ramen – not the healthiest option. Photo via flickr

Distinctly different from Western style Ramen or store bought ramen-in-a-cup, Japanese ramen is a long-held tradition in Japan. Originally from China, ramen has become a popular staple with local varieties emerging in regions throughout the country. A hot, delicious broth commonly made from pork or chicken bones, mixed with thin ‘ramen’ wheat noodles topped with sliced pork, dried seaweed and green onion makes for a warm, filling meal. And don’t get me started on the insanely, delicious, somehow-runny ramen eggs! The downside is a super high sodium content and ingredient quality of the broth and noodles can vary widely. Ramen is that unhealthy but welcoming friend; the one who takes you to the best parties and leaves you hungover as fuck in the morning.

Price: 💰💰 – roughly ¥500 – ¥1000

Heft: ⛽️⛽️ ⛽️⛽️ – can feel stomach become bowl of ramen, especially if there’s unlimited noodles

Health: 🔋– I don’t think any Japanese person would tell you ramen is healthy.

🍣 Sushi

Healthy Eating Japan: Japanese sushi is full of fresh seafood

Not like in the West; Japanese sushi is full of fresh seafoods. Photo via flickr

Another Western favourite, “sushi” refers to rice mixed with vinegar and is commonly served in small portions with a piece of fresh, fatty fish draped over the sushi rice. It’s surprisingly easy to make healthy choices with this meal; cold-busting ginger eaten to cleanse the palate, omega-3 rich fish, and antioxidant-filled green tea served alongside. Again, soy sauce is the main unhealthy culprit here but remember to keep to your Japanese-size portions. I found it to be the most expensive of all “fast food”, however convenience stores sell cheap, portable bento selections. Hundreds of types of sushi exist and in restaurants throughout Japan it’s treated as an art form, so make sure you’re respectful and follow the proper sushi etiquette.

Price: 💰💰💰 – varies widely depending on dishes, approx. ¥200 for 2 pieces.

Heft:⛽️ ⛽️ – may have to spend a lot to get full, order soups or sides to help out.

Health: 🔋🔋🔋🔋choose wisely

🍤 Tonkatsu

(pretend that ^ prawn is pork)

Healthy Eating Japan: Tonkatsu meal

East meets West in a tonkatsu meal.

Based on a European pork schnitzeltonkatsu is a Japanified crumbed pork cutlet. Arriving in the early 1900s and modified to be cut into small, chopstick-friendly pieces, covered in a “worchester” (modified Worcestershire) sauce, and served with finely shredded cabbage, rice and miso. A perfect meal to grab when you’re craving something a little more Western but still want the Japanese experience. This stuff is so popular you’ll even find it made into curry or squished between two crustless pieces of white bread at the conbini. Deep fried in vegetable oil doesn’t help with the health stakes, however the helpings of cabbage is welcomed, green roughage. Tonkatsu chain stores are widely available, delicious and some do free refills of rice, cabbage and miso.

Price: 💰💰 – ¥800 for a full meal, often cheaper at lunch times.

Heft:⛽️⛽️ ⛽️ – especially if there’s free refills involved.

Health: 🔋🔋– a little healthier than a cheeseburger meal.

🍜 Soba / Udon

Healthy eating japan: bowl of thick udon noodles in lunch set

A huge bowl of thick Udon noodles in a lunch set. Photo via flickr

Maybe I’m crazy for combining these two noodle-and-soup meals together. On one hand there’s udon; thick, chewy noodles hold up perfectly in hot, light-tasting broth. On the other hand, soba; thin, buckwheat noodles often served with a cold, soy sauce-based dipping broth, called zaru soba, in the hot summer months. It’s common to enter a chain and have a choice between the two noodles and a variety of different style soups. Despite including refined white wheat in the noodles, these dishes can be a satisfying alternative to ramen or rice.

Price: 💰 – from a chain store, approx. ¥500 a bowl

Heft:⛽️⛽️⛽️ ⛽️ – similar to ramen, those noodles fill you right up.

Health: 🔋 – the various soups make it difficult to pin down, plus bulk noodles.

🍲 Gyudon

Healthy eating japan: favourite Japanese fast food: a gyudon bowl from Sukiya! Featuring miso soup and egg with yolk splitter spoon. Yum.

Our favourite Japanese fast food: a gyudon bowl from Sukiya! Featuring miso soup and egg with yolk splitter spoon.

Gyudon is perhaps the most popular Japanese “fast food”. A heartier variation of donburi (rice bowl with meat), Gyudon uses thinly sliced beef and onions with a sweet, salty sauce. You’ll see gyudon chain stores like YoshinoyaMastuya and, our favourite, Sukiya, everywhere. These chains serve gyudon in varying sizes with a range of toppings. We recommend spring onion, cheese and egg, but there are many other toppings  to add if you’re Japanese language skills are up to it. Most stores will sell a cheap set including the staples: rice, miso, seaweed and pickled vegetables. Health-wise, the meat isn’t of the greatest quality but the onion add an array of healthy attributes and the rice-carbs and miso will keep you full for a long time.

Price: 💰 – a set for around ¥600, perfect hangover meal

Heft:⛽️⛽️⛽️ ⛽️ – order a Mega Size for a whole day’s worth of food

Health: 🔋🔋– Just a big ol’ bowl of rice.

No journey to Japan is complete without trying out as much Japanese food as possible. We know that. We also know that it’s very common to leave Japan with a few extra kilos. There’s not much point being a strict health-nut in Japan but when you intend to explore a whole city, you might wanna know which option is best for your energy-hungry body. Remember to drink lots of water (to saturate all that salt) and that the convenience store is your best friend in times of trouble (read: you gonna get hangry). Or, in truly dire times, a sugary drink from those ubiquitous vending machines will keep your energy up for as low as ¥100.

My mouth is salivating from the thought of all this delicious Japanese food. And when the prices are low (to Australian standards at least), it’s easy to go overboard. Remember the keys to the Japanese diet – small portions and variety – and you, most likely, won’t leave as the sumo size version of yourself.

Where do you head when you’re eating healthy in Japan? Or overseas in general? Are you also a Sukiya ambassador or do you root for the other brands? (Let’s battle.) Let us know in the comments below!

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1 comment on “JAPANESE FOOD: A Cheap and Healthy Eating Guide”

  1. Taylor says:

    Next level shit is right! Even the onigilli at 7/11 isn’t too shabby. Your heft ratings cracked me up. Has anyone ever felt awesome after a full bowl of ramen?

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