Chinese medicine is so commonly considered an effective way of treating ailments in Japan that pharmacies here often stock traditional Chinese remedies alongside Western drugs. Believing in it is one thing, but getting it down is another: many Japanese have an aversion to actually consuming the stuff, because the taste and smell can be totally icky. Enter yakuzen (薬膳), the Japanese term for a form of Chinese cuisine that blends Chinese medicinal ingredients (kanpō, 漢方) into meals, turning hard-to-swallow powders and teas into delicious meals. Though yakuzen has been around for awhile, there are indications that it might be ripe for a revival.
New on the yakuzen scene is Oriental Recipe Cafe, an establishment that opened in Harajuku this April. They serve up dishes that vary with the season and the physical condition of the customer. Under the management of Yukari Arai, a master of oriental medicine, dishes are made with ingredients that can help with particular health issues. Eye strain, for example, can be eased with a tea made with a blend of kuko (a shrub that is purported to act as a tonic) and chrysanthemum. A key element of dishes served in Oriental Recipe Cafe is that they are made specifically to please the Japanese palate, so a curry that is made to improve the condition of the kidneys, for example, contains the traditional Japanese fish stock dashi.
They’re not the only ones giving a Japanese twist to yakuzen food. Reset Cafe in Toranomon offers a hormone broth, while in Osaka, Goshiki is making some noise about the organic ingredients and homemade sauces in its yakuzen cuisine. 10Zen (read “juuzen”) in Tokyo’s Shinagawa offers up hotpots for detoxing, improving your skin, or slimming down. In the same space, they offer both consultations, prescriptions and products, as well as regular classes on kanpō.
Since the food is tailored to treat specific ailments, it’s not uncommon for yakuzen eateries to have an expert on hand to consult about which foods best suit your health needs. At Reset Cafe, customers fill out a medical questionnaire as they’re ordering their food. Much of the menu is based around soups, and there are six available to suit ailments such as inflammation, dry skin or bad circulation.
News Searchina is going so far as to proclaim a “yakuzen boom.” Indeed, products containing ginger, a common kanpō ingredient, were trending last winter, indicating that people are open to incorporating traditional remedies into their diets. The interest in yakuzen complements the recent attention on organic vegetables and overall healthy eating that we’re seeing. The only downside is that a lot of yakuzen food seems to come in the form of soup or steamed dishes, which is not necessarily appealing during Japan’s excessively hot and humid summer months!