Eating to Keep Cool and Energized During Japanese Summer (or, Centuries of Advice on How Not to Become a Melted Slug)
By Emily Law
I toss and turn all night in the prickly heat. My muscles can barely push down the pedals of my bicycle. At school, my thought processes move at a glacial pace, despite my flushed cheeks and the sweat trickling off my forehead. I know I’m not alone, because I walk into an unlit classroom to find students draped, unmoving, over desks and chairs, mouths open, like stunned fish. Their teacher sits on a broken stool behind the podium, shoulders slumped, staring at nothing. And when the bell chimes, no one moves.
The Japanese word for this feeling is natsubate, or summer fatigue. Natsubate is characterized by general lethargy, a lack of concentration, difficulty sleeping and sometimes even a mild depression. At best, natsubate is uncomfortable, unpleasant and makes it difficult to enjoy the summer’s myriad activities; at worst, it can lead to heat stroke.
Some Japanese doctors point to the body’s inability to regulate its temperature, especially via perspiration, as the main cause of natsubate. Others cite loss of fluids. Much of treating natsubate is common sense: drink minimally caffeinated liquids, avoid prolonged sun exposure, wear breathable clothes and keep the body in good shape so it can sweat efficiently.
But others point more specifically to a nutritional deficiency caused by a loss of appetite in the smothering heat. And here, the food-loving Japanese culture and the doctors meet merrily. There exist many Japanese foods and drinks traditionally used to whet the appetite, cool and nourish the body and give you the energy to enjoy your long summer months.
Historically, the population relieved its thirst with the earthy, rounded taste of mugicha, or roasted barley tea. Iced green tea – now found in every vending machine, every corner konbini and every school refrigerator – is a surprisingly recent invention. But PET-bottled mugicha (むぎちゃ、麦茶), caffeine-free and nostalgic, is almost as common, and still much enjoyed.
Nostalgic drinks and icy treats take precedence in summer. Among them are the glass-bottled soda Ramune (ラムネ), its fizz made by resoundingly popping a marble through its cap; creamy Calpis (karupisu、カルピス); iced coffee; cold, canned beer; and sake. Festivals see youthful spirits scooping and slurping on brightly colored kakigori – flavored shaved ice – to cool and hydrate. My all-time favorite kakigori is mango, with a drizzle of condensed milk. The vendor who made it for me lovingly explained that the machine he used had been passed down in his family for generations.
Homemade umeshu, both the liquor and the ume plum steeping inside, is another long-standing and tasty remedy for summer fatigue. Check out this round of articles for Ed’s advice on how to custom-make your own umeshu.
Tart and acidic ingredients like ume and vinegar will also help to stimulate the appetite in the heat. Pickles do the same; they served a double purpose in old Japan, preserving vegetables through the heat and humidity of summer, and stimulating the appetite when that same weather threatened to deprive people of the nutrition they needed to stay healthy.
Cool or cold foods with high water content will lower your body temperature and keep you hydrated. You can find seasonal vegetables, and some fruits, cheap at your local market. Look for cucumbers, eggplant, bitter melon, tomatoes, zucchini, watermelon and spinach. Try them chilled and raw, with a sprinkle of salt. Or dip some vegetable sticks into a sweet miso sauce: mix red or white miso with a spoonful or two of sugar or honey, a spoon of sweet cooking sake (mirin、みりん、味醂) and a couple of spoons of dashi.
Traditional quick-cooking methods, like parboiling and stir-frying, preserve flavor and vitamins and have the added benefit of minimizing heat output into the sweltering air of your kitchen. It’s a great way to practice setsuden, the term for “electricity conservation,” and keep your bills down, too.
You can, for example, parboil spinach by dropping it in boiling water for about thirty seconds, or until it turns bright green, draining and following with a cool rinse. Eat your little bundle of greens plain, or coat with a traditional sesame dressing (see below). You’ll also find pre-made sesame spinach in the prepared foods section of the supermarket.
Chilled foods don’t stop at vegetables. Noodles, or tofu, or even tofu noodles, all chilled on ice or in cold water, are an age-old way to lower your body temperature and fill your belly. Seek out some nagashisoumen (“flowing noodles”). Eager participants send thin, white soumen noodles down a long bamboo flume full of running water. They then pluck out the soumen with their chopsticks, dip them in cups of light sauce and then slurp away.
At restaurants, you can find cold noodle dishes made with buckwheat soba or white soumen, but they’re also easy to make at home. Check out the instructions for soba below. And in Japan, cold noodles aren’t just made from flour. You can find tofu noodles that look and taste exactly like soumen (とうふそうめん、豆腐そうめん), chewy konnyaku (こんにゃく) noodles and clear, delicately flavored tokoroten, noodles made from a gelatin-like seaweed derivative. These noodles have the benefit of being low in calories and subsequently lighter on the stomach. Tofu, tofu soumen and tokoroten all provide vegetable protein; tokoroten are also unexpectedly rich in minerals and fiber, because of their seaweed base.
If you don’t like cooking, or you’re traveling, ready-made tofu and noodle dishes are all over the stores. Konbini and supermarkets sell cold tofu, soba and udon with sides of condiments and sauce. Most konbini also carry tofu soumen during the summer, in a round plastic container with a packet of dipping sauce concentrate sealed in the top. Konbini marketing shows a distinct awareness of seasonality, and at this time of year, cold dishes, fresh vegetables and seaweed salads multiply by bounds.
All of these dishes tend to come with zingy condiments: sliced green onion, grated ginger, wasabi, chili pepper. These are called yakumi, meaning “stimulating additions.” Yakumi aren’t just for flavor; they’re also used to energize the sluggish summer body.
Old wives will recommend a meal with heat and spice to combat natsubate. And despite the seemingly contradictory advice, this recommendation carries logic. Spicy foods increase circulation, which provides energy and helps maintain a healthy body. Hot foods, like a cup of hot tea or a bowl of miso soup, make you sweat and release toxins, similar to the effects of a sauna. Admittedly, the weather right now might be akin to a sauna, but sometimes the body still needs an extra boost. How much more sweat-soaked can your clothes get, anyway?
For a big jolt of sutamina – stamina and energy – some even recommend an occasional heavy, oily meal. Traditional sources of sutamina include unagi (eel) with a sweet sauce, served over a bed of rice, and internal organ meats. Personally, I’ll steer clear of these, but I do remember a particularly energized day that followed a meal of rich, throat-numbingly spicy Japanese curry from Coco Ichiban. If you can handle the heat, in all senses, a good curry is rich, filling and stimulatingly spicy. Japanese curry is easy and comforting, but there are also several good Indian restaurants around the prefecture. Take a glance at Sarah’s glowing review of the restaurant Anna Purna, in Fukuyama, from last fall.
Choose foods and drinks that keep you hydrated and cool, but occasionally pump up the flavor and sweat things out. Look for foods that provide a maximum amount of nutrients, because the body is working especially hard in these temperatures. It’s timeless advice gleaned from centuries of experience, with a culture and a cuisine to match.
Cooking templates for the curious chef:
Sesame Sauce, To Dress Up Your Spinach
Grind about two large spoons of white sesame seeds into a paste. Add a spoonful of dashi*, a splash or two of soy sauce and a few pinches of sugar. Mix.
*Dashi is Japanese soup stock, made from bonito fish and konbu seaweed (こんぶ), or just konbu seaweed. Stores sell mix-with-water granules. You can make your own by simmering a piece of konbu in water for about 20 minutes, or leaving it in the water overnight in the refrigerator. A good, literal rule of thumb is one cup water for one thumb-length of konbu.
Cooking Cold Soba Noodles
Cook the noodles as you would al dente pasta, using unsalted water. Drain*, place in a bowl, douse with cold water and rub so the individual noodles don’t stick together too much. Toss on top of a bowl of ice for extra cold noodles.
Serve with a bowl of dipping sauce, or tsuyu. You can find tsuyu/mentsuyu concentrate in bottles at the supermarket, but it’s really just soy sauce, mirin, sugar and dashi.
Add your stimulating (and other) condiments to the bowl of dipping sauce. Sliced green onion (look for little boxes of pre-sliced onions in the refrigerated produce section), grated ginger, wasabi, sesame seeds, sliced shiso leaves, sliced nori seaweed and chili pepper are all wonderful choices. Dip your noodles briefly in the sauce, and enjoy.
*It’s customary, and beneficial, to reserve the cooking water for a post-meal drink. You can also use it to dilute your dipping sauce, instead of plain water.