Photos by James Carrier

When I first came to the United States, I packed on 25 pounds in two months—too many cheeseburgers, too much pizza, and too-frequent jumbo portions. But when I went back to my mother's Tokyo kitchen after a couple of years in the States, I lost all the extra weight in less than three months.

Japanese women have the greatest longevity on Earth and the lowest obesity levels in the developed world. You may think it's all in our genes, but when Japanese people shift to unhealthy foods and too-big portions, they get fat, just like I did. What's our secret to staying slender? Fresh seasonal foods prepared in the healthiest, simplest ways and served in modest portions on beautiful dishes—a style of celebrating food that lets the natural beauty and flavor of the ingredients shine through.

In winter, we Japanese eat lots of warming soups, hearty noodles, and other piping-hot dishes that feature vegetables, fish, soy, and rice. And all year round, Japanese people "eat with their eyes" as well as their mouths—we take time to enjoy the natural goodness and beauty of the food. Try this approach with these recipes, and enjoy the healthy, satisfying tastes of Japan.

Salmon with Sake and Daikon
Serves 4 / Simplicity itself, with a lovely blend of flavors and textures. If you prefer, grill the salmon instead of roasting it. Ingredient tip: When making Japanese food, I recommend sake that's meant for drinking, not inferior-tasting cooking sake.

4 4-ounce wild Alaskan salmon fillets
4 teaspoons good-quality sake
Pinch of salt
1 cup finely grated daikon radish (about 4 ounces), excess liquid drained off
A few drops low-sodium soy sauce

1. Place fish fillets in a shallow dish; season both sides with sake and a pinch of salt.

2. Preheat oven to 450°. Place fillets on a foil-lined baking sheet and roast for 15–20 minutes, or until the center flakes when tested with a sharp knife.

3. Transfer fillets to individual plates. Mound 1/4 cup grated daikon next to each fillet; drizzle daikon with drops of soy sauce. To eat, put some grated daikon and soy sauce onto a piece of fish.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 177 calories
% fat calories: 36
Fat: 7g
Saturated Fat: 1g
Cholesterol: 51mg
Protein: 25g
Carbohydrate: 1g
Fiber: 0g
Sodium: 64mg

Warming Soba Noodles with Spinach
Serves 4 / Buckwheat soba is Japan's nutritional noodle champion-a good source of protein, whole grains, fiber, and complex carbohydrates. Ingredient tips: Bright red shichimi togarashi is a dried, seven-spice fiery chili mix, available in Japanese markets and well-stocked natural-foods stores. Check soba-noodle labels for sodium; amounts can vary widely.

1 pound spinach, well washed, roots and coarse stems removed
4 cups dashi (see recipe, below)
1 cup well-packed large bonito flakes
1/4 cup good-quality sake
1/4 cup mirin (Japanese cooking wine)
3-4 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon natural cane sugar
1/2-1 teaspoon salt (optional)
1/2 pound low-sodium soba noodles, uncooked
1 scallion, thinly sliced
4 tiny sprigs Italian flat-leaf parsley
Shichimi togarashi, to taste (optional)

1. Steam spinach over boiling water for 30 seconds, or just until bright green and wilted. Drain in a colander and rinse under cold water. Gently squeeze spinach to release excess water. Lay spinach on a clean tea towel or cheesecloth, and gently roll up to absorb any remaining liquid. Set aside.

2. Place dashi in a saucepan over high heat. Stir in bonito flakes and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, and pour through a fine sieve lined with a double layer of cheesecloth to strain out bonito flakes. Transfer stock back to saucepan and stir in sake, mirin, soy sauce, sugar, and salt. Bring just to a boil, reduce heat to very low, and keep warm.

3. Place a large saucepan of water over high heat; bring to a boil. Add soba noodles and cook, stirring to prevent sticking, until just cooked through, 6–8 minutes. When just past al dente, drain the noodles in a colander and rinse under warm water.

4. Unroll spinach, squeeze out excess water, and cut into 1-inch pieces.

5. Return stock to a boil. Distribute even portions of noodles among four large soup bowls. Lay a small mound of spinach over noodles and cover with stock. Garnish each serving with scallions and a sprig of parsley. Season with shichimi togarashi, as desired.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 324 calories
% fat calories: 4
Fat: 1g
Saturated Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 10mg
Protein: 22g
Carbohydrate: 61g
Fiber: 6g
Sodium: 838mg

Dashi (Traditional Japanese Cooking Stock)
Makes 4 cups / This smoky, flavorful stock serves as a base for many Japanese dishes. Ingredient tips: Look for kombu (a dried sea vegetable) and bonito fish flakes in the market's international-foods section. A 1-ounce bag of bonito flakes contains about 8 cups loosely packed flakes. Ready-to-use dashi is also available at Asian grocery stores in liquid or powder form; or you can substitute low-sodium vegetable stock or broth.

1 4x4-inch sheet kombu
4 1/2 cups cold water
4 cups large, loosely packed bonito fish flakes

1. Place kombu in a medium saucepan. (Do not wash or wipe off the whitish powder; it abounds with flavor.) Add water and bring almost to a boil. Immediately remove kombu to prevent liquid from becoming bitter.

2. Add bonito flakes and heat on high. When liquid returns to a boil, immediately turn off heat and let flakes rest in liquid for 2 minutes. Pour stock through a fine-mesh sieve. Avoid pressing on the flakes to prevent stock from turning cloudy and bitter.

3. Refrigerate dashi, covered, for up to two days.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving (1 cup):
Calories: 43 calories
% fat calories: 0
Fat: 0g
Saturated Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 8mg
Protein: 8g
Carbohydrate: 1g
Fiber: 0g
Sodium: 60mg

Naomi's Vegetable Dumplings
Makes 40 / When I was a little girl, my mother taught me how to make Chinese dumplings, or gyoza. These are a light, fresh Japanese version. You can find gyoza wrappers in many supermarkets or Asian grocery stores.

1 1/2 cups finely chopped cabbage
5 medium-large shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps minced
1 cup finely chopped nira (Chinese chives or garlic chives), or regular chives
2 scallions, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
40 round gyoza dumpling wrappers
4 tablespoons canola oil, divided
4 cups boiling water, divided

Dipping Sauce
1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1/2 cup brown rice vinegar
1 teaspoon hot pepper oil

1. To make dipping sauce, combine soy sauce, vinegar, and hot pepper oil in a small bowl or jar. Set aside until serving time.

2. Place cabbage, mushrooms, chives, and scallions in a large bowl. Season with several generous pinches of salt and grinds of pepper. Use your hands to blend ingredients together.

3. Fill a small bowl with cold water. Place 2 teaspoons cabbage mixture in the center of a gyoza wrapper. Lightly wet one finger in the water and trace around the inside of the gyoza wrapper; this makes it sticky enough to seal. Fold wrapper in half; gently press edges from right to left, pinching and folding every 1/4 inch to make a zigzag pattern. Repeat with remaining cabbage mixture and wrappers. Place completed dumplings crimped side up on a foil-lined baking sheet.

4. Heat a large, deep skillet with a lid over high heat and add 1 tablespoon of oil. When hot, reduce heat to medium-low and add 10 dumplings, crimped side up. Cook, uncovered, until lightly browned on the bottom, about 4 minutes. (Do not turn them over.) Pour 1 cup boiling water into the skillet. Cover and steam-cook dumplings over medium heat for 8–10 minutes, until tops are translucent and water is mostly evaporated. Transfer to a plate and keep hot. Repeat process with remaining dumplings, oil, and water.

5. Serve dumplings immediately, golden sides up. Set out small dishes filled with dipping sauce.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving (1):
Calories: 36 calories
% fat calories: 39
Fat: 2g
Saturated Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Protein: 0g
Carbohydrate: 5g
Fiber: 0g
Sodium: 81mg
7 weight loss secrets from my mother's Tokyo kitchen

Base your diet on fish, soy, rice, fresh vegetables, and fruit.
Eat modest portions on beautiful, small dishes. Cook quickly and gently (sauté, simmer, stir-fry, steam). Eat a bowl of short-grain rice with your meals. Think of vegetables more often as a main dish. Cook with healthy canola oil. (Olive oil is generally too strong for Japanese tastes.) Take time to savor and admire the beauty of your food.

—N.M. & W.D.

Kale with Sesame Seed Dressing
Serves 4 / I discovered kale after I moved to New York, and I love its rich texture and flavor. Japanese people often make this with spinach, too. Preparation tip: To chop sesame seeds, pulse about five times in a spice grinder-gently, so the mix doesn't turn to paste.

1 bunch (1 pound) kale, well washed, roots and coarse stems removed
2 1/2 tablespoons chopped, toasted white sesame seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons natural cane sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce
Pinch of salt

1. Steam kale over boiling water for 3 minutes, or just until bright green and wilted. Drain in a colander and rinse under cold water. Gently squeeze kale to release excess water. Lay kale on a clean tea towel or cheesecloth and gently roll up to absorb any remaining liquid.

2. In a small bowl, mix chopped sesame seeds with sugar, soy sauce, and a pinch of salt.

3. Unroll kale and cut into 1-inch pieces; place in a small bowl. Pour sesame mixture over kale and toss well to combine. Serve warm or cold.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 91 calories
% fat calories: 28
Fat: 3g
Saturated Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Protein: 5g
Carbohydrate: 14g
Fiber: 3g
Sodium: 117mg


Born and raised in Tokyo, Naomi Moriyama is the author of Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat (Delacorte Press, 2005). She lives in Manhattan with her husband and coauthor, William Doyle.