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Friday, July 30, 2010

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Summer dishes: Cold soba noodles with chicken, vegetables and lemon-sesame sauce contains plenty of fatigue-combating ingredients MAKIKO ITOH

Japanese dietary tips to prevent summer lethargy

When the heat threatens to sap all our energy, it's time to change what we eat


Special to The Japan Times

Anyone who has spent a summer in Japan will likely be well- acquainted with natsubate, or "summer fatigue" — a general state of lethargy and tiredness, lack of concentration, sleeplessness and even mild depression.

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Other recommended foods include unagi eel (below), lemon juice, vinegar, ginger and "cooling vegetables" that are high in water content, such as cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplants. ROBBIE SWINNERTON / MIO YAMADA
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Dealing with the relentless heat and humidity, which only lets up slightly in the evenings, is enough to get anyone down. Air conditioning helps, but as it often blasts out unpleasantly over-chilly air in many public spaces, it sometimes ends up making you feel worse.

Japanese people have come up with all kinds of ways of bringing relief to the dog days of summer, some of which go back to the times before air conditioning and electric fans. There are the obvious ones, such as drinking iced mugicha (roasted barley tea) and cold beer or snacking on kakigori (shaved ice with syrup) and slurping up cold soba or somen noodles. But if not done carefully, subsisting on cold food and drink can actually end up leaving you malnourished and even more fatigued.

It's just as important, in these hot months, to eat not only foods that help cool the body, but also those that can help combat natsubate. In Japan, such foods include unagi (eel) and dojo (loach) — two types of fish that have high levels of omega-A oils, which many nutritionists believe can improve physical stamina.

Even before we knew of omega-A oils, feasting on eel was a traditional Japanese summer ritual. Doyo no ushi no hi (which translates as "Midsummer day of the ox"), the day that marks the height of summer in Japan (July 26 this year), is also known as Unagi no hi, Eel day, because eating unadon (grilled eel with a sweet-savory sauce on a bed of rice) on that day was first documented during the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Though eel and loach are eaten today because of their health benefits, during the Edo Period, the black color of their skins was also believed to ward off bad luck. Since Doyo no ushi no hi, was also considered to be a particularly accident-prone day, other dark natsubate foods, such as black beans and eggplant, are eaten on this day, too.

Although my grandmother never believed in the supernatural power of black food, she did insist that we practice certain habits to keep ourselves healthy in the summer. Some of her rules, such as making us eat at least one of her homemade salty umeboshi (pickled plum) every day, were probably more the stuff of old wive's tales than actually beneficial. But there were also plenty of good ideas based on plain common sense.

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Ice-cool: Kagigori, shaved ice with syrup, pictured here with green-tea syrup and condensed milk, is one of many traditional ways to beat the heat in Japan. MIO YAMADA

Here are some of them. * Eat well-balanced meals, including vegetables, beans, fish and meat. My grandmother believed in feeding her grandchildren some kind of meat every day. * Eat a lot of "cooling" fare. Cooling vegetables and fruit are high in water content, and most are in season during the summer. They include cucumbers, eggplant, bitter melon, winter melon, tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash, watermelon and peaches. * Have at least one hot meal a day. Hot tea and miso soup may make you sweat, but you'll feel a lot better for it. * Lemon and vinegar help increase the appetite when it's very hot. Besides salads, eat things like sunomono (wakame seaweed, cucumber and other things in a vinegar sauce) and aji no nanbanzuke (deep fried and vinegar- marinated baby horse-mackerel). * Ginger and spicy foods will get your circulation going, so use them in cooking at least some of the time. An easy way to add fresh ginger to your meals is to use it grated or finely chopped as a garnish on cold noodles, grilled and chilled eggplant or hiyayakko, the cold tofu dish that's ubiquitous in the summer.

Makiko Itoh is the author of "The Just Bento Cookbook," (Kodansha International), available from September in Japan and from January in the United States. She writes about bento lunches on justbento.com and Japanese cooking and more on justhungry.com.


Light summer soba noodles with chicken, vegetables and fresh lemon-sesame sauce

This refreshing and easy-to-eat cold noodle dish packs a lot of fatigue- combating nutrients. It's usually made with ramen or somen noodles, but here I'm using soba. The buckwheat used to make soba noodles is said to have a calming effect on nerves frazzled by the heat and humidity, according to yakuzen principles, a holistic way of eating based on Chinese medicine.

The vegetables, chicken, shrimp and sauce of this dish can all be prepared a day in advance and kept in the refrigerator. It you are in need of a stamina boost, try replacing the chicken with thinly sliced grilled steak for a heartier variation. Sliced kamaboko (fish cake) is also an easy no-cook substitute for the shrimp. And if you can't get a hold of shiso (perilla) leaves, use chopped parsley as a garnish.

Serves 2 to 4

Lemon-sesame sauce

100 ml dashi (fish) stock, or 100 ml water with 1/4 tsp. dashi granules

3 tbs. soy sauce

1 tbs. sugar

2 tbs. nerigoma sesame paste or tahini

2 tbs. lemon juice

Main dish

250 grams boneless, skinless chicken breast

2 tbs. sake or dry sherry

1/2 tsp salt

16 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

10-12 green beans

2 Japanese cucumbers or 1 English cucumber

2 large romaine or iceberg lettuce leaves

1 medium red tomato

1 medium yellow tomato

100 grams dry soba noodles

To garnish

1 Tbs. sesame seeds, toasted for a few minutes in a dry frying pan

3-4 shredded shiso leaves

A few thinly cut slices of lemon

Put all the sauce ingredients in a bowl and stir well. Refrigerate if necessary.

Sprinkle the chicken breast with salt, and place in a dry nonstick frying pan. Add sake. Turn the heat to high, and place a tight-fitting lid on the pan. Turn the heat back down to low and steam-cook the chicken for 5 to 6 minutes, until the juices run clear when you prod the thickest part with a skewer or chopstick. Add the shrimp and replace the lid; steam for another 1 to 2 minutes, until the shrimp turn opaque and pink.

Remove the chicken and shrimp from the pan and set aside to cool. When cooled, finely shred the chicken.

Cut off the ends of the green beans and thinly slice them on the diagonal. Boil in salted water for 2 to 3 minutes until crisp-tender. Drain and cool in cold water. Slice the cucumber into fine julienne and shred the lettuce. Remove the seeds from the tomatoes and dice them.

Add the noodles to a boiling pan of water, and stir them in gently. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes (Note: If the pot threatens to foam over while boiling, add a little cold water.)

Drain the noodles in a colander and rinse under cold water to cool them until all the excess starch has been washed off. Drain the noodles well and arrange on plates.

Top dishes with the chopped vegetables, chicken and shrimp. Drizzle on the sauce and garnish with shredded shiso leaves, lemon slices and sesame seeds. Serve immediately.




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