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Taking a cue from the Japanese, wellness consultant Naini Setalvad discusses foods that induce longevity

Life expectancy is the highest it has ever been, thanks to advancement in medical technology. Besides longevity, it is also important to have a good quality of life, be free of disease and pain, and in a good mental and physical state. There are many countries whose people enjoy high life expectancy without any advanced technological and medical support; the best example of this is Japan. A closer study reveals that the Japanese consume certain foods regularly that help them live a long and ailment-free life. More amazingly, many of these foods are available across India. We just need to make a conscious effort to include them in our diet.


The Japanese diet is rich in seafood, especially fish, which helps reduce the risk of heart diseases. Fish is a very good source of protein and also considered excellent brain food. Fatty fish is a rich source of omega-3, which elevates the mood and guards against certain types of cancer and inflammation. Unlike red meat, fish has a positive effect on cholesterol. There is a wide variety of seafood, especially fish, available in India and used abundantly. The coastal regions are renowned for yielding a number of preparations that are not only delicious but healthy too.


The Japanese eat a mixed variety of greens almost every single day. Greens are a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals. In India, too, we have coriander, fenugreek, spinach, amaranth, moringa and much more grown locally in different regions and it is easy to incorporate this huge source of iron, calcium, protein, magnesium and Vitamin C into our diet. Have leafy greens as stand-alone, sidedishes, toss them in your dal, mix them in your dough while making rotis and dosas, or use them to make gravies and purees. When combined with a dairy product, iron loses 50 per cent of its value. So forget the palak paneer; have palak dal or methi chawal instead. The bioavailability (the rate at which the nutrient is absorbed by the systemic circulation) of leafy greens increases when mixed with Vitamin C, so squeeze a lemon or add tomato, tamarind or kokum (Garcinia cambogia) to your greens.


Almost 100 years ago, Japan was facing multiple water-borne diseases leading to many deaths. During this time, microbiologist Dr Minoru Shirota discovered the lactobacillus strain shirota, the most effective gut flora that is largely responsible for maintaining a healthy digestive system. Logically, if one increases shirota in the body, more natural ‘killer’ cells are produced to provide stronger immunity. Traditionally, Indians do consume fermented foods like yoghurt, lassi, buttermilk, dosas and pickles but we lose out on their nutritional benefits because of a weaker digestive system. I therefore recommend the powerful strategy of sipping on fermented beverages that boost gut health and immunity such as kefir (a milk drink containing B group of vitamins), miso (a drink with soybean, or even rice and barley), and Yakult (a popular probiotic milk product). Most Indians are fond of Yakult as it is similar to buttermilk. Rice kanji (a rice and water concoction) is also a rich source of carbohydrates and helps treat diarrhoea and rehydrate the body.


Japanese food revolves around rice—the most common staple grain—owing to its ability to morph into any shape or size like sushi, mochi (cake) or rice balls. Rice is a staple in India; a good source of carbohydrates and energy, it is easy to digest and blends effortlessly with the varied flavours and cuisines seen across the country. A small quantity of long-grain basmati keeps you full for a long time. Unpolished rice is even better as the husk that coms with it acts as a diuretic.


Sesame seeds are an excellent source of non-dairy calcium and keep the bones healthy. The Japanese have profusely incorporated this oilseed crop into their diet. Being high in copper, sesame seeds reduce pain and swelling linked to arthritis and the high magnesium levels reduce risk of diabetes, relieve stress and boost your mood. Sesame seeds are also rich in iron and help fight fatigue and anaemia. In fact, incorporated in the diet of lactating women, they increase milk production. The seeds and their oil are widely used across all Indian cuisines. We’ve all heard about the famous karivepaku podi (curry leaves powder) of Andhra Pradesh; tilachi chutney of Maharashtra, tilwaale aloo of Uttar Pradesh, and til laddu, chikki and gajjak of Gujarat and Punjab. Use sesame seeds for tempering, garnishing, and as a mouth freshener and digestive aid.


Peanuts lower bad cholesterol, increase good cholesterol and keep the heart healthy. They are rich in protein and contain monounsaturated fatty acids that prevent coronary diseases. The Vitamin E in peanuts also protects skin cells from free radical damage. The Japanese commonly use peanuts as garnish, as do we. In fact, we also add them in chutneys and in preparations like khichdi, masala bhat and poha as well as dal, vegetables and sweets, such as chikki. Peanut oil is widely used in India. The best part: you can just munch on them!


Vinegar is a standard ingredient used in the preparation of various Japanese dishes. Interestingly, it has been used in India for many centuries. There’s a mention of vinegar in the Buddhist scripts as well as in Sushruta Samhita, the ancient Indian text on medicine and surgery. Vinegar was re-introduced to India by the Portuguese and is an important element in Goan cuisine. We are all well acquainted with the sour, pungent liquid that brings about the purplish-pink colour to onions. But we often underestimate this edible acid and do not realise the health benefits it offers—vinegar is rich in potassium, iron, magnesium and calcium and satiates hunger, thus preventing you from overeating. Add it to your diet on a daily basis as a condiment or as a dressing to your salads and stir-fried vegetables.


You will find grated or pickled ginger on every dining table in Japan. Much like Indians, the Japanese are aware of the healing properties of this ancient root. Ginger helps prevent arterial pain and is excellent for joint pains. It is also a cure for any form of motion sickness. The juice of ginger is a sure-shot remedy for breathlessness owing to nose congestion, bronchitis or asthma. Stomach illnesses and gas and overeating-related troubles can all be cured by this miraculous root. Little wonder then, that ginger is added to most Indian cuisines to prevent indigestion. Ensure you include it in all your meals.


The drinking of tea is intrinsic to Japanese culture, whether it is green tea or matcha (a powder of specially grown and processed tea leaves). With less caffeine than coffee and rich in antioxidants, tea, especially green tea, may aid weight loss, reduce risk of heart attack and stroke, boost immunity and even help battle cancer. India is equally renowned for its large variety of teas—green, black and red. You can add spices to your black tea to prepare a decoction like kadha (to fight cold and flu) or make kahwah, the exotic Kashmiri drink prepared with green tea and spices.


A great deal of Japanese food is cooked in buckwheat flour, which is known to be nutritious, nourishing and energising. Free of gluten and rich in fibre, nutrients and antioxidants, it can help prevent diabetes and promote heart health. It also reduces food cravings. In fact, buckwheat flour—kuttu ka atta—is widely used to prepare food in the fasting season in India. Being easily digestible, it is an ideal food for silvers.


This Japanese citrus fruit could be mistaken for an orange except for the fact that it is seedless. Citrus fruits contain a high amount of Vitamin C and serve as a great source of dietary fibre, thus helping to strengthen immunity and digestion. Indian oranges are equally yummy and healthy and I always recommend eating them ripe or in the form of juice when they are in season.


The Japanese realised long ago that sugar has empty calories while artificial sugars have carcinogenic properties and are detrimental to health. As an alternative, they cultivated stevia and incorporated it as a sweet substitute in their food and beverages. Stevia does not have any side-effects and is safe for diabetics too. India is also growing the stevia plant on a large scale now, so we can avail the benefits of this natural sugar substitute.

Eat healthy, live longer



  • Buckwheat (kuttu) flour: 1 cup
  • Sama (rava) flour: ¼ cup
  • Sour yoghurt: ½ cup
  • Green chilli: 1; ground to paste
  • Coriander leaves: 5 sprigs; finely chopped
  • Black pepper powder: 1 tsp
  • Rock salt to taste
  • Oil: 1 tbsp

For tempering

  • Sesame seeds (til): 1 tbsp
  • Curry leaves: 6-7
  • Oil: 1 tbsp


Combine the ingredients in a large mixing bowl and allow it to rest for 30 minutes. Stir 1 tbsp of oil into the batter. Grease the dhokla plates, pour the batter on them and steam on high heat in a steamer for 10 to 15 minutes until done. Heat oil in a kadhai and add sesame seeds. When they crackle, add curry leaves and spread the tempering on the dhokla. Serve hot with coriander chutney.



  • Whole urad dal: ½ cup
  • Bengal gram or channa dal: ½ cup
  • Red chillies: 50 gm
  • Asafoetida: ¼ tsp
  • White sesame seeds: 100 gm
  • Curry leaves: a handful; dried
  • Oil: 1 tsp
  • Salt to taste


Heat half-tsp oil and roast the urad and channa dal together till they turn golden brown. Heat the remaining oil and roast the red chillies in it. Add asafoetida and roast for a few more seconds and switch off the flame. Leave it to cool. Dry-roast the sesame seeds and curry leaves separately. First, grind the sesame seeds. (Avoid grinding too much to prevent oil from oozing out.) Then, grind the dal mixture coarsely and keep aside. Grind the red chillies with salt and curry leaves to a fine powder. Mix everything and store in an airtight container. This is a great accompaniment to idli and dosa.



  • Pomfret fish: 6 pieces
  • Fresh coconut: 1; finely grated
  • Green chillies: 3
  • Coriander leaves: 100 g; washed and cut
  • Mint leaves: 100 gm; washed and stems removed
  • Ginger: 2-inch piece
  • Garlic cloves: 3
  • Cumin powder: ½ tsp
  • Turmeric powder: ¼ tsp
  • Lime juice: 4 tbsp
  • Banana leaf: 1; washed, spine removed and cut into 6 pieces
  • Oil: 1 tbsp
  • Salt to taste


Place the fish pieces on a tray. Drizzle lime juice on top and sprinkle salt to taste. Turn the pieces to fully coat them with the mixture. Set aside for 20 minutes. Blend the coconut, chillies, coriander leaves, mint leaves, ginger, garlic cloves, cumin powder, turmeric powder and salt to a smooth paste. Add as little water as possible, if necessary. Divide the paste into 6 portions and use each portion to marinate the pieces of fish. Set aside again. Pat dry the banana leaves and smear them lightly with oil on the smooth side. Place a piece of fish in the centre of the leaf and wrap into a neat parcel. Tie it with a twine or cotton string. Similarly, prepare other pieces of fish and cook them all in a steamer for 15 to 20 minutes. Serve hot with chutney.

Setalvad is an obesity and lifestyle disease consultant who offers diet counselling at Health for You, a wellness clinic in Mumbai, as well as online. Visit for more details or write to if you have any queries for her

Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
December 2017