Food Health Lifestyle Tokyo

How the concept of Wabi-Sabi calls us to celebrate the beauty in imperfection

Miica Fran creates beautiful food with “wabi-sabi” veggies.

Hola humans of the future! I welcome you to take a comfy seat at our table, taste our delicious food, drink our sparkling sake, and get to know the brave and beautiful women of Japan. Yes, I’m still daydreaming of the first of a series of delicious, intimate lunch gatherings we hosted in Tokyo last summer. 

Let me introduce you to Miica, a talented food creator currently traveling the world; Juri, the chef at the Tokyo restaurant Udo; and Kyoko, my young “Japanese mom” who connects me with Japanese culture in all its culinary forms, and many other women I admire: Charlotte, Saeko, Ayako. 

Together, these magnificent women and I explored the wisdom of the Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi– the beauty of things imperfect, transient, and incomplete — as a simple approach to reducing food waste and embracing our imperfections.

I’ve been curious about wabi-sabi for many years, even before coming to Japan two years ago. Something about it resonated deep within me. Perhaps it was because, as women, there’s so much societal pressure to be perfect in every way, and here was a philosophy that acknowledged the truth that — like everything in nature — nothing is perfect and nothing is finished, and this is part of what makes life beautiful. 

I began to wonder more about other women in Japan and what this idea might mean in their lives. I wondered – what might wabi-sabi teach us about loving and embracing ourselves — and our food — flaws and all? How might wabi-sabi’s wisdom strengthen our relationship with ourselves, our planet, and the food we eat? I invited women to come and ask these questions with me, to celebrate “beautiful imperfections” together around a table of flawed food and sparkling sake.

So, without more ado, let’s walk inside the rustic, farm-to-table restaurant Udo, and leave perfection, and all its baggage, behind.

Wabi-Sabi To Reduce Food Waste 

I feel cozy and at home here; it’s a welcome escape from the bustling Shibuya crossing only blocks away. Waves of wood frame the white plaster walls and bouquets of dried herbs hang from the ceiling.

Japanese chefs Juri and Miica

I peak in the kitchen as Juri and Miica open a box of “wabi-sabi” veggies salvaged from Base Side, an organic farm owned and operated by Atsue Durrant, a photographer and a member of the national “Women Who Farm” project. Smiling, they hold high two carrots intertwined in a suggestive shape, three eggplants conjoined at the stem, gnarly potatoes, and scabby pears. These flawed fruits and veggies would have been food waste and most certainly would never have made it inside a Japanese grocery store. 

To many westerners, wabi-sabi is deemed the quintessential Japanese aesthetic, a humble, austere and natural way of living and seeing that has grown long branches around the world. But here in Tokyo, this native concept rooted so deeply in its history, feels forgotten amidst the city’s dense highrises, flashy neon signs, and perfectly symmetrical (and overpriced, we’re talking $50 for a melon people!) fruit at the supermarkets. 

Yet, these “wabi-sabi” veggies exude a deep and vibrant beauty, freshness and flavor that you can’t get from homogenous mass production. They are gold, worth saving, savoring, and sharing. By celebrating the beauty of natural process and differences in food, we can help minimize food wasted because of appearance. 

This is important because one-third of food is wasted worldwide, every year, and about six million tons of food in Japan and some six billion pounds of U.S. fruits and vegetables go unharvested, unsold and uneaten, often for aesthetic reasons. Japan and America throw away almost as much food as they eat because of a “cult of perfection”, perpetuating hunger and poverty, and placing a heavy toll on the environment.

Statistics gathered by the Japanese government show that the average amount of food thrown out per person, per day in Japan, could fill up an entire rice bowl. “This food waste stands in contradiction to Japan’s low food self-sufficiency rate of 40%” and the fact that about three million children in Japan live below the poverty line and are thus at risk of hunger and malnutrition. 

Food experts say there is growing awareness that governments cannot effectively fight hunger, or climate change, without reducing food waste. A meaningful reduction in food waste also calls for a change in the mind-set and behavior of consumers.

Wabi-Sabi to Empower Women 

This same spirit of wabi-sabi can be carried over to our lives as women and nourishment of a healthy self perception, acceptance and empowerment.

Our gathering was a rare chance for each of us to finally get real about our fears, and our (fabulous) flaws. Each woman shared her story, her struggles, her truths and triumphs. For me, I could relate to that asymmetrical curve of the carrot after having undergone a unilateral mastectomy as part of my breast cancer journey. Being free to talk about that openly in a safe space felt cathartic, healing and even humorous.

Around the table we could celebrate and savor the “wabi-sabi” veggies with the creation of these unique recipes: grilled Spanish Mackerel with shio koji, red moon potato vichyssoise, chopped salad with tomatoes and mint, quiche with a sweet charcoal crust, grilled white eggplants with shiso genovese, steamed seasonal vegetables with fermented sunflower seed dip (See recipe below)!

Beautiful Harmony

In addition to the amazing food, we also toasted to Japan’s new era Reiwa (meaning “beautiful harmony”) with glasses of Reiwashu, a sparkling sake made of peach ferment. This new era sees beyond rosé-colored glasses of bubbly to a beauty found in the broken. This is the “beautiful harmony” of nature, seeds growing through mud, which reach and return full circle to take a perfectly imperfect place on our table. 

Empowerment emerged from the knowledge that all things – the worn pottery, our aging skin, even our food revolution, are imperfect and part of the universal life cycle of becoming. 

The “wabi-sabi” veggies and stories we shared, I still reflect on to this day, and would love to continue the conversation and recreate some of our wonderful recipes with you. Though that day has since passed, the sensations and the stories are still alive and may become your own.  

Special gratitude goes to the magnificent food creators Miica and Juri for the wonderful, spontaneous feast of delicious dishes, as well as Kyoko and Sake Lovers for the Reiwashu sparkling sake. Also, thanks to their support, a portion of the Reiwashu sales went to the Pink Ribbon Campaign! We will host another wabi-sabi women’s circle in November so watch out for new stories and recipes.

RECIPE for Wabi-Sabi Vegetables with Fermented Sunflower Seed Dip:

Juri has given us permission to share her original recipe for steamed seasonal vegetables with fermented sunflower seed “bagna cauda.” This is one of her specialties that she prepared for the gathering and a wonderful appetizer that is perfect for sharing! 

Ingredients:

・ raw sunflower seed  500g

・ olive oil  90cc 

・ soy sauce 30cc

・ garlic two cloves

Instructions:

Toss all ingredients and a tablespoon of water in a blender until it’s a smooth paste. Cover and let the paste ferment for at least 10 days in the refrigerator and then serve with vegetables. 

JULIA // Tokyo

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