This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
In the US, liver has been in the news with the California foie gras ban going into effect. However, I hadn't heard until today that Japan is going through it's own liver debate. If you have asked me to NYC restaurant recommendations, I've probably told you about Takashi, a unique West Village spot that serves the cuisine of Korean immigrants who lived in Japan. One of the best dishes on the menu is the raw marinated liver, which is amazingly fresh and doesn't have the mineraly flavor so many object to in this organ meat. It is the best preparation of normal liver that I've ever had.
I read an article today about raw meat eating in Japan that says that unfortunately Japan may ban the dish due to a food poisoning outbreak that killed five people and recent scientific tests that found pathogenic e coli in some samples of liver. But the food poisoning outbreak involved raw meat (yukko, another delicious dish at Takashi, which is roughly like beef tartare) from a department store that was not graded for raw consumption.
Most of the major food poisoning outbreaks in the past five years in the US have involved produce. So far I haven't heard of anyone calling for a ban on lettuce or spinach. It's funny because I know some older Chinese women who have told me that they view the US consumption of salads made with raw vegetables as being very risky. Of course, I am of the opinion that every food you eat is risky and banning food because of risks is foolish and almost always inconsistent with actual logic. Most of the risk is mainly for certain populations like children, pregnant women, and the immunocompromised.
Another funny story I found when I was googling raw liver was that a Korea pop star named IU apparently relished a pile of raw liver on Korean television. The Korean Vegetarian Federation demanded an apology for the incident. Reading the Wikipedia article on raw meat in Korea, the history of vegetarianism itself in Korea is very interesting, with it gaining in popularity along with Buddhism during the Goryeo Dynasty. Luckily in the Joseon Dynasty, the state favored Confucianism and since it was said that Confucius enjoyed raw meat, it became trendy again. The practice of eating raw meat was said to originally have come from China, where is may have become unpopular because of epidemics in the 11th century.
Korea is still a place where you can get a good vegetarian meal though. One of my favorite chefs, David Chang, toured some of these traditional vegetarian restaurants. The tension between vegetarian and non-vegetarian in Korean food is evident to me in many dishes I've eaten over the years. One memorable one was a rice hearty broth with chunks of both blood and tofu. Or Ssam, which is succulent roast pork with a delicious fermented soy and pepper sauce called Ssamjang.
It was actually at a Korean restaurant that I learned to follow Confucius' saying "Do not shun rice that is well clean; do not shun kuai (raw meat or fish) that is thinly sliced." I was with a group of paleo dieters and one made the mistake of sending the rice away. The cook, a Korean grandmother, was very concerned for our health and sent us a platter of sliced tofu.
Tangentially, Taoism has a very strange relationship with grains like rice, some Taoists claiming they feed corpse demons that lead to death and decay. While that might seem like Taoists would get along really well with Loren Cordain, it becomes clear that the ascetics who wanted to avoid corpse demons weren't exactly eating steak, but miserable-sounding herbs and honey, a diet that seems quite similar to that of the Christian Orthodox St. Mary of Egypt, who was said to have lived in the desert as an ascetic eating various plants of the wilderness. However, her goal was penitence, not longevity, which the Taoist ascetics sought. The Taoist practice seems quite similar to modern practices of calorie restriction for longevity.
Most American Christians are very much unaware of the ancient Christian history of meat-restriction. Possibly because it doesn't fit very neatly with modern conceptions of vegetarianism, which stress lifelong abstinence. Ancient Christians fasted from animal products on specific fast days. An devoted Orthodox Christian in Ethiopia or Greece is going to be essentially a vegan for half the year, with some invertebrates and fish allowed on certain fast days. An interesting research article I read about recently discusses how hyenas in Ethiopia are affected by fasting. If you are vegan and traveling in an Orthodox country you can often get an appropriate meal by asking for "Lent" food. Western Christianity split off and became more and more lax about fasting and at this point most Western Protestants know nothing about it. I was looking up tansy (related to Game of Thrones but I don't want to spoil you all) yesterday and I found it amusing that it was once used in dishes during Lent in order to reduce the flatulence people experienced because of legume-heavy diets. Epazote is used similarly in Mexican cooking.
I hear it all the time: why not just eat a diet like the Okinawans, the healthiest and longest lived people in the world? Traditionally they ate rice, tofu, and almost no meat! Unfortunately after WWII Americans introduced bad foods like pork and now disease rates are increasing.
That's the conventional narrative at least. Honestly, I'm not sure about the Okinawan diet. Most of the people discussing it are Americans with some sort of ax to grind. I would love to hear some Okinawan voices tell us what they actually ate, but those are few and far between.
Americanized nonsense "Okinawan Diet"
The picture that is painted from the actual studies available is pretty murky, but shows that what is being promoted as an Okinawan diet is cultural misappropriation for profit, with American nutritionists making $$$ passing off what ends up being a Mediterranean diet with rice as the secrets of Okinawan elders.
The real traditional diet seemed to consist of yams, goat, pork, tofu, seaweed, and seafood harvested from the island. It seems like it was pretty similar to the diet of Kitava. After the devastation of World War II, importation of food increased and oils, sugar, flour, white rice, and other processed foods became staples. The narrative of fat consumption increase only takes statistics starting from World War II, so we really don't have much of an idea of how much fat was in the traditional diet.
We do know the the consumption of traditional foods like raw goat, yams, and seaweed decreased dramatically. Also, that domestic meat production didn't really change much after WWII and much of that increase was probably recovery from devastation of the war. The increase of meat consumption came mostly from imported animals that were probably factory-farmed...or SPAM, which is now hugely popular there.
It does seem that their traditional diet was high in carbohydrates from yams, but its nonsense make up an Okinawan Diet plan including foods that are nothing like what pre-WWII Okinawans consumed such as whole grain bread, olive oil, soy milk, apples, and yogurt. The traditional Okinawan diet doesn't seem to be far from my own paleo diet, except for the soy . Fortunately, the harmful effects of that can be mitigated by fermentation. I occasionally consume some fermented soy since I am an Asian food enthusiast and I adore the taste of miso and ssämjang. Yam are controversial on the paleo diet, but personally I enjoy them without ill effects. I would say my own paleo diet is heavily influenced by Japanese cuisine and benefits from it tremendously. I could never tolerate a diet of just eggs and ground meat...I'm too much of a foodie and an omnivore for that!
Here is a recent paper on the importance of the yam, kombu, and pork offal in Okinawa. Paleo dieters could definitely benefit from the consumption of kombu, which is rich in iodine, and pork offal (feet, ears, blood, intestines), which is delicious and contains many important nutrients. The problem with this paper is that they assume that people threw away pork fat...I don't know of any agrarian culture that exhibits that kind of waste. They say akunuki is removal of fat, but it also seems to mean removal of astringent taste.
Speaking of Japan, I was just reading this editorial by Swedish scientist Uffe Ravnskov:
In a study of Japanese migrants in the United States the cultural upbringing was the strongest predictor of coronary heart disease. Those who were brought up in a non-Japanese fashion but preferred the lean Japanese food had a heart attack almost twice as often as those who were brought up in the Japanese way but preferred fatty American food.4
I think it's possible that the issue here was that they thought fat wasn't traditional for Japan, but it sheds light on the fact that fat doesn't seem to cause heat disease.