What Keeps the Japanese Thin and Trim?

The Japanese live long, they are thin, and so it must be the soy or the sushi-based diet that keeps them that way, right?

Not so fast. A while back I had an amazing lunch hosted by Japan's External Trade Organization, featuring The Beverly Hilton's Executive Chef Katsuo "Suki" Sugiura, and I learned that the true "Japanese Secret" may just be the fiber content of several core ingredients.

From Sugiura's bio we learn that this is a chef who knows and uses the science of each food to produce a healthy, great-tasting dish with visual appeal.

"Suki's philosophy is that great cooking is honest and meticulous. He takes endless effort to understand ingredients, their origins, as well as the science behind them, including growing and production processes. Consequently, he has dedicated the past 15 years to studying the cultural origins of food."

For our tasting, Chef prepared recipes using three core Japanese ingredients: Kanten (agar agar), Hijiki (seaweed), and Konnyaku (elephant yam). His dishes also had a unique twist—they could all be made plant-based; so much for thinking of Japanese cuisine as fish-centric.

The fiber story begins with kanten, an aquatic fiber that expands in the belly and helps one to feel full. It is also a great replacement for gelatin, as it is a vegetarian source that delivers the same cooking properties as gelatin. The gazpacho mold made from kanten was light, delicious, fiber rich and, happily for someone who doesn't like a jelly consistency, surprisingly not slimy.

Hijiki seaweed is another Japanese stealth fiber-rich ingredient. It also delivers a great mineral ratio of calcium to magnesium (2:1). The hijiki crostini was an impressive way to take seaweed from a sea vegetable, less likely to have mass appeal, to an Italian taste that is perfect for a cheese-less but still calcium-rich crostini option.

I had never had konnyaku (no relation to yams or sweet potatoes) but learned that it is actually a Japanese favorite; konnyaku jellies are a much enjoyed candy. On the other end of the spectrum, konnyaku is also used as a diet tool because the high fiber and no calories helps to fill you up—consider it a "free food" for those who understand "dieter's speak." We sampled three konnyaku dishes, my favorite being the konnyaku "steak" over spaghetti squash.

Five small-plate "tastes" in and a few sips of green tea and I found myself surprisingly quite full. The Japanese Secret: Design dishes using fiber-rich ingredients accessorized with delicious proteins, healthy fats and vegetables, and one could happily eat less without feeling deprived or hungry.