Macrobiotics is a flexible system, and kitchen management is always possible even with challenging personal circumstances. There is always a way to handle perceived constraints; you just have to find it! The most important factor is to make a decision that you will succeed.
Many newcomers to a macrobiotic lifestyle feel overwhelmed with the time they think they need to spend in the kitchen in order to create a well-balanced meal. We often hear comments such as: “I can’t spend all day in the kitchen;” “I’m working a full time job so my time is limited;” “I get home so late in the evening after a ten hour (or more) work day - how can I possibly start cooking so late, especially when I am so hungry;” “I have too many other interests besides cooking;” or just plain, “I hate cooking.”
If that weren’t enough, there are those who express exasperation even before making their first foray into the kitchen, to wit: “My wife does all the cooking in our house; she is not interested in changing her eating or cooking habits;” “How can I cook for myself separately for my husband and six kids who love meat and sugar;” and, “There are no macrobiotic restaurants in our area.” The list of excuses is endless.
FOR THOSE WHO WOULD RATHER NOT COOK
If you are not cooking for yourself and feel that it is your spouse or partner’s responsibility to feed you, then I have a bulletin for you. A macrobiotic lifestyle entails taking responsibility for your own health. That includes cooking, or at least assisting in the kitchen if your condition does not enable you to cook for the time being. Consistently allowing someone else to feed you creates a dependency that cannot be sustained over a long period of time. After all, your partner may be working, or may want to spend a day away without having the obligation of cooking all your meals. The important thing to emphasize is that even if your significant other normally does most or all of the cooking, it is important for you to look into kitchen activities often and long enough so you can put together a meal. Also, I am sure your contribution to the preparation of food and/or cleaning up afterwards would be highly appreciated.
For those seeking restaurant foods to sustain your weekly meal schedule, our experience is that restaurant eating is a great idea socially to enjoy the amenities of eating out on occasion or to host a friend. Usually we pass up eating in restaurants. The food is prepared with extremely yang (contractive, stressful, harsh) energy, the menu hardly varies from time to time, the amount of oil and salt used exceeds our standards, and the menu caters to those seeking a broad, sensorial eating experience rather than presenting food appropriate to ones health condition. In other words, restaurants are an occasional treat rather than a source of nourishment.
Conclusion: one cannot avoid spending time in the kitchen.
SETTING UP A MACROBIOTIC KITCHEN
How quickly and thoroughly do you want to transition to a macrobiotic way of life? If the transition to a macrobiotic kitchen will be immediate and far-reaching, it may not allow your family the time to adjust to some very significant life changes. Hats off to those willing to accept such an amazing leap of faith, but I believe that most people would do better with some time to gradually change from one lifestyle to another, even when health related issues are the motivating cause of the changeover.
If, nevertheless, a sweeping transition is your choice, empty all the unwanted canned, frozen and packaged foods lying in the cupboards, refrigerator, and storage areas of your home into a large empty carton before heading for the health food store, organic farmer or supermarket to restock. Most conventional refrigerators are stacked with long forgotten foods that will be of little use in your new way of life.
If on the other hand you want to change over gradually in order to adjust to the new foods, slowly eliminate the old foods that no longer feel right for you. The most important aspect in this way of kitchen planning is to totally separate cupboards, storage spaces and refrigerator shelves into sections for conventional food as opposed to items for macrobiotic cooking. Without this separation, chaos and unpleasant energy vibrations result. When cooking macrobiotic food, it is so much easier to reach for ingredients in a specific part of the kitchen rather than to look all over for something inadvertently buried with other items not relevant for your meal. This is especially true in your refrigerator, as food tends to be lost amid the myriad ingredients, leftovers, etc. that generally occupy most coolers.
Stock your kitchen with macrobiotic foodstuffs as soon as possible. The following list includes the kitchen utensils and foods I would suggest acquiring initially. Afterwards there is time enough to supplement your kitchen with other items that you want to use.
Wooden Cutting Board:
A thick board best absorbs the energy of cutting. The board does not need to be too large. Our board is 30 cm wide, 40 cm long and 4 cm deep (12 x 15 x 1.5 inches). We find this size adequate. It shouldn’t be so heavy that it is hard to move around easily. Plastic or other artificial materials dull your knife and are not as pleasant to work with as wood.
Invest in the best vegetable cutting knife you can find, along with a two-sided stone sharpener: I suggest that each person in your household who is cooking use his/her own personal knife. We use a Japanese Mac knife for all our cutting. The blade is rectangular or pointed with a rounded front edge, handy for chopping parsley, nuts, etc. I can’t say enough about the need to keep your knife very sharp at all times. A sharp knife enables you to cut easily, and minimizes accidents as the chance of it slipping because of excessive force in cutting is minimized.
Bowls and Strainers:
Use fine-mesh metal strainers to drain off cooking liquid and metal or plastic bowls for holding boiled vegetables as you work. I recommend three sizes of bowls, and at least two different sized strainers with single handles. One or two oil strainers of different sizes are also helpful for scooping out boiled vegetables from a pot.
These come in handy for stirring and serving. A spoon with a flat bottom is useful for pan-roasting seeds. Metal spoons are not energetically comfortable for cooking; they tend to scratch your pots and pans and are less harmonious with gentle kitchen energy. Long cooking chopsticks are also inexpensive and handy for stirring food.
Pots and Pans:
I would suggest a 1, 2, and 3 liter (quart) stainless steel pot in addition to one large pot, all with lids. We recommend relatively small pots as they are most suitable for preparing meals for up to five or six people. Do not use aluminum, Teflon or other chemically coated pots for cooking. I also recommend a 1- or 2 liter (quart) heavy iron pot, such as Le Creuset or Staub for long cooked bean or vegetable dishes. We use these pots constantly for nishime (waterless) style cooking and other dishes requiring a long time on the fire. A ceramic “nabé” pot is handy for various cooking styles, but is not important initially.
I highly recommend the WMF 2½ liter (quart) stainless steel pressure cooker. It is available on the internet.
A pressure cooker is essential for cooking rice and other long cooked grains daily, as well as hard beans such as chickpeas and Japanese black soybeans. Larger pressure cookers are poorly suited for cooking small amounts of grain without overcooking.
This can be purchased at a nominal cost in any hardware store, and is necessary for cooking evenly on a low fire. We have several of these and sometimes use as many as three at a time for various dishes.
Buy small sized bowls for soup for moderate portions.
Use chopsticks or metal silverware, depending on personal preference: Many macrobiotic practitioners prefer wooden energy of chopsticks, often for aesthetic reasons.
Small- and large-sized vegetable graters are important tools in food preparation. I especially recommend a round porcelain grater. It is much more efficient and comfortable to use than metal.
Buy a medium sized suribachi initially for grinding. This ceramic bowl and pestle have many uses in making sauces, dressings, and condiments such as gomasio. A large suribachi may be useful in a macrobiotic kitchen later on when you are better established.
We store grains, beans, sea vegetables, seeds and pasta in glass jars on open shelves both for convenience and the joy of having them visible at all times. Finding space for these jars may be a challenge in an otherwise crowded kitchen, but the effort will be rewarded. 12 to 15 jars are adequate when starting out. Don’t try to keep food items in plastic bags in a cupboard - things become very difficult to find when mixed up and out of sight. Plastic or glass containers of various sizes can be useful for leftovers, food takeouts, etc. Refrain from putting hot food directly from the pot into plastic containers. Wooden bowls allow freshly cooked rice be stored for a whole day without refrigeration.
Four or five condiment containers are on the table during each meal - the macrobiotic equivalent of salt and pepper shakers.
We usually refrain from using electrical devices in our kitchen, but occasionally some tasks require use of a hand blender.
We find a 20 cm diameter steamer the most useful for us, and sometimes also a metal steamer insert basket.
These are used to making sushi and vegetable rolls, and for covering cooked food while allowing air to flow through it. We suggest buying three mats.
Use cotton clothes for wiping the knife and cutting board each time you finish cutting a vegetable, and cotton kitchen towels for drying your hands as you work.
Use natural cleaners available at health food stores, and not harsh chemical cleaners.
Organic foods and products are considerably more costly than their conventional equivalents, but are incomparably healthier, tastier and more ecological. Although you pay more for these products as well as special foods such as umeboshi plums, shiitake mushrooms, kuzu, etc., there are considerable savings in foregoing frozen, packaged and baked goods, sweets, soft drinks and the myriad other products generally found in a conventional household.
Conventional vegetables may be used for variety when organic ones are unavailable. Avoid genetically engineered vegetables such as corn and soybean products. Highly sprayed foods such as strawberries are best left on the store shelf. Frozen organic corn is OK as a rare exception to fresh vegetables.
These foods are recommended for stocking a macrobiotic kitchen:
Principle grains include rice, sweet rice, barley, millet, bulgur, whole-wheat couscous, and oatmeal. Other grains, such as rye, whole-wheat berries, wild rice and quinoa (quinoa is actually a grass) may be added later.
Principle beans include green and/or black lentils, chickpeas, Hokkaido aduki beans and Hokkaido Japanese black soybeans. The Hokkaido aduki beans are medicinal in nature, and are easily recognized by their relatively larger size and shiny texture.
Wakame, kombu, arame, hijiki, and nori are the most common sea vegetables in the macrobiotic kitchen. Other sea vegetables such as dulse, mekabu, etc. may be purchased to supplement these at a later date.
Prepared and Dried Products:
Shiitake mushrooms, kuzu, kanten (agar-agar), umeboshi plums and paste, cold pressed organic sesame oil, tofu, tempeh, dried daikon, dried tofu, and dried lotus root are frequently used.
Sweet brown rice vinegar, umeboshi vinegar, shoyu soy sauce (preferable to tamari), mirin, barley miso, rice miso and sweet white miso, fresh and pickled ginger, sauerkraut, cinnamon, sea salt, rice syrup or malt, and barley malt. We recommend SI sea salt or Atlantic Portuguese sea salt for daily use.
Nuts and Seeds:
Tan and black sesame seeds, hulled pumpkin and sunflower seeds, almonds, walnuts, peanuts and pecans are most suitable for daily use. Nut butters are best homemade rather than store bought.
Kukicha tea is the preferred drink. Barley coffee made from 100% grain and other teas may also be enjoyed occasionally.
Fresh Fruits and Vegetables:
We recommend stocking a wide variety of root, round and green leafy vegetables while avoiding tropical fruits and vegetables, nightshade vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, spinach, eggplant, and peppers. We suggest following the recommended guidelines of your macrobiotic counselor in the use of different foods.
It is preferable to use filtered or bottled spring water for cooking, drinking, and rinsing vegetables.
- Most fresh produce should be stored in the refrigerator, though a number of hearty root vegetables may be placed in open bins or baskets outside of cold storage, including onions, squashes, carrots, turnips, etc.
- Leafy vegetables generally spoil quickly if they are not in plastic bags.
- We generally store miso and oil in the refrigerator after they are opened.
- Fresh ginger needs to be refrigerated.
- Some grains may require refrigeration in damp atmospheric conditions or sustained heat.
- Seeds and nuts should be stored in airtight containers to stay crisp and dry.
- Rice syrup and barley malt do not need refrigeration.
If you have space in your refrigerator, organize your food categorically. We store our leafy green vegetables (kale, scallions, broccoli, etc), round vegetables such as turnips, squash, cabbage, etc, and root vegetables (carrots, daikon, parsnips, etc) separately. This organization makes it just a little easier to find things. Don’t stuff your refrigerator to the point where some of your vegetables in the back of shelves get lost for days and spoil before you rediscover them.
WEEKLY COOKING PLAN
Books cannot explain details of macrobiotic cooking, how to plan a menu for seasonal meals, cooking for your condition, and so on. Rather, a cookbook is a useful supplement to cooking lessons from a qualified macrobiotic teacher who explains balance through the application of yin-yang principles. I first began practicing macrobiotics without guidance. Only after a consultation with a qualified counselor did I realize that I had to change all my habits and cooking styles and begin from scratch. During the twenty-one years that I have followed a macrobiotic lifestyle I have taken many cooking lessons with many teachers; each has his own style, and details vary with personal energy and experience. Once I had the fortune to attend a cooking class at the Kushi Institute in Becket, Massachusetts with Michio Kushi. Five different cooking groups made the same dish with the same ingredients; none of the dishes tasted the same.
My recommendation, therefore, is to have a consultation with a macrobiotic counselor as soon as possible after you decide to change your lifestyle, followed by cooking lessons. If you decide to convert your kitchen but postpone a consultation, begin cooking lessons as soon as possible.
After a health consultation some people like to create a weekly menu plan to ensure preparation of the various dishes or cooking styles the counselor recommends. This schedule may best be done with a computer spreadsheet to allow for flexibility and easy update, an intricate and thorough task that requires several hours.
Maintain contact with your counselor to resolve the various difficulties that arise from time to time. This support is very useful, and sometimes indispensable.
DAILY MENU PLANNING
Most people feel comfortable with a three-meal-per-day schedule, but a two-meal-day works well for some. The following menu plan is suitable for cold weather, beginning about one or two months before the onset of cooler temperatures. During hot summer months prepare three short-cooked vegetable dishes to offset the hotter weather. It is important to understand that creating and maintaining balance is accomplished by a gradual energy shift, always avoiding extreme foods. For example, evening soups during summer months may be quickly prepared, whereas long-cooked, hearty, saltier soups are more suitable for cold weather.
Green leafy vegetables
Snack, if desired
- If you take your lunch from home there is no need to heat it up or to refrigerate it, particularly if prepared fresh that morning.
One long cooked vegetable dish
Two short-cooked vegetables
Protein (tofu, tempeh, natto, seitan)
Long cooked vegetable
Two short cooked vegetables
Beverages as needed
Fish if desired
COOKING PLAN OVERVIEW
Cooking each meal with freshly prepared food is ideal for vital health, but competing activities sometimes take priority. I recommend freshly prepared food at each meal for someone healing a serious or life threatening illness; otherwise, one or more shortcuts can help save time.
Cook fresh rice daily, preparing enough for a whole day. Beans can be cooked and saved for two and sometimes three days. Long-cooked vegetables can be reheated the next day; it is best to prepare fresh short-cooked vegetable dishes rather than reheating them. I would recommend eating greens immediately after cooking - hey do not retain their freshness for long. Miso soup should also be eaten right after cooking it; hearty winter soups can be held over for more than one day, though I prefer freshly cooked soup. Pressed salad may be eaten for more than one day if you haven’t rinsed off the excess salt. Salad dressings will stay fresh for a second day if they are stored separately. Also, you may want to consider taking a thermos filled with sweet vegetable drink for mid-morning and mid-afternoon use when your blood sugar tends to drop.
The first principle of shortcutting is to clarify your timetable so you can choose your best times for cooking. I suggest cooking all your daily meals at two separate times of day. There are several possibilities:
You Work a Regular 9 To 5 Day:
Cook breakfast and lunch in the early morning, and make a relatively quick dinner after you return home. The advantage of this schedule is that lunch is relatively fresh and does not require refrigeration overnight. Also, your two main meals of the day - lunch and dinner - will be different.
Personally, I preferred this alternative during all the years that I worked a daytime job. I spent a total of 1½ hours cooking, eating my breakfast and cleaning up afterwards. Sometimes I even prepared takeout meals for clients and family. My lunches included desserts and snacks.
Cook lunch and dinner together in the evening, storing the next day’s lunch in the refrigerator, and prepare a fresh breakfast in the morning.
If you are the type who likes to sleep till the last minute or has to leave for work very early in the morning, then consider alternative II. It is often best to cook your daily rice and beans in the morning, starting from the moment you wake up, so they will be ready by the time you finish your morning exercises, washing, and so on. Waiting till you return from work to cook grains and beans may be inconvenient unless you are home early enough; you may get too hungry waiting for them to cook.
Another possibility is to cook rice and beans in the late evening for your lunch and dinner the following day. However, you will not be able to enjoy the full flavor of freshly cooked rice and beans at your meal, and consequently you will have less vitality from your food.
You Work a Long Day of Ten to Twelve Hours or More:
It is necessary in this case to prepare additional food to take with you, as lunch will not be sufficient to keep you satisfied till you get home for a late dinner.
One possibility is to take extra grain and quickly boiled or blanched vegetables with you to serve as a mini-dinner. The additional blanched vegetables can be prepared together with breakfast so very little extra time is needed to prepare this food.
A second possibility is to prepare rice balls or sushi for dinner or a snack; these are delicious finger foods that provide more interest than plain grain. You may also bring an extra dessert to get you through the day. Another good idea for those working very long hours is to put hot soup into a food thermos. This is an excellent way of overcoming hunger when a regular meal looms too far ahead.
ORGANIZING BEFORE YOU START COOKING
A word about order in the kitchen is important. Keep everything within easy access and maintain a clean and neat kitchen environment. This enables you to remain calm while you are creating your meals, so this soft energy will be reflected in your food. The following hints may help you in this respect:
Clear the working area of everything not needed for cooking before you start. Clear and clean the sink and put away all dishes, pots, etc. that are in the dish rack.
Wear an apron while in the kitchen in order to separate the work there from other daily activities.
Keep a wet washcloth to the side of your cutting board for wiping your knife and board as you move from vegetable to vegetable, and a cotton dishtowel next to the board for wiping your hands.
Place a bowl or empty container near your cutting board during food preparation for trimmed ends, peels, etc.
Keep a hot pad nearby to pick up hot pot handles or covers, and a trivet for setting down hot pots.
Use two separate pads for cleaning dishes and pots, one with soap and one without. Soap is necessary only when using oil or fish; otherwise, hot water is enough for cleaning.
Work from a planned menu until you accumulate the experience and confidence to improvise.
Wash dishes as you go. Rather than leave a dirty dish in the sink for later, wash it and let it stand in the dish rack to dry. If you let dishes accumulate in the sink you may be overwhelmed by the time you finish cooking. I do not personally recommend a dishwashing machine. Since most of the time you are not using oil, a quick rinse is usually enough to clean a dish. I am not advocating refraining from the use of oil, but rather saying that since most dishes and utensils used in a meal are oil-free, there is simply no need for soap. Washing without soap is not only quicker, but soap residues that otherwise can remain even on rinsed dishes are no longer an issue. So if soap is not necessary, I don’t use it. A dishwasher can be useful for big families or special events. But for daily use with a small group and for in-between snacks, etc., it is easier and more efficient to simply wash, dry and put dishes away rather than the longer process of waiting for the machine to be packed, then running and emptying a complete machine.
Play soft music while cooking, or none at all, depending on your preference. Music can sometimes be relaxing if you find yourself rushed or harried. Avoid loud, bouncy music, talk radio, or TV programs that will divert your attention from cooking. Preparing a meal with calm energy requires your full attention and the use of all your senses - including smell, sound, and touch.
If you are cooking breakfast and lunch together, cook lunch first so that breakfast will be hot when you are ready to eat it.
Prepare longer cooking dishes first, and then the quicker ones while the other food is on the fire.
Wash and cut the vegetables and prepare the other ingredients ahead of time, space permitting, as an orderly way of working. This enables you to find whatever you need quickly without going back and forth to the refrigerator or shuffling through your cabinets. With more experience you can learn to wash and clean vegetables while other dishes are already on the fire. This requires more coordination and concentration to keep an eye on what is cooking without losing control.
Although I suggest a five-dish lunch and dinner, occasionally you may want to cook only two vegetable dishes instead of three for a light or quick meal. When I have the time and am feeling creative, I sometimes cook six or seven dishes; some with just one ingredient, and others more complex.
SAMPLE OF DAILY MENU
Morning miso soup should have a light flavor - use less miso or shoyu than in the evening soup. Include wakame seaweed and just one or two vegetables.
Porridge can be prepared from fresh grains in a pressure cooker or from leftovers:
Fresh Grains: Soak about ¼ cup of rice per serving overnight with 3 to 3.5 times water. Soaking is preferable but not mandatory. Add a pinch of salt per cup of rice or a small amount of white miso after the water boils. Seal the lid, bring to pressure and cook for 50 minutes. For variety, try mixing a small amount of other grains with the rice, and/or adding a sweet vegetable to the grain - squash, carrots, onions, leeks, or cabbage. The vegetables may be cut into large pieces, as the long pressure cooking will soften them.
Left-Over Grains: Place the grains with water to cover in a pot and boil with an open lid. Add white miso or a small amount of shoyu and heat with a closed lid on a low fire over a flame deflector for about ten to fifteen minutes.
Blanched Vegetables: A variety of leafy greens and round vegetables is best for breakfast - leeks, kale, collards, broccoli, kohlrabi, radish, etc. Serve long cooked vegetables sometimes for breakfast instead of combining them in a pressure cooker with the porridge.
Lunch can be the main meal of the day or secondary to dinner, depending on your schedule. Since noon is the most active time of the day, this meal should also be strengthening and dynamic.
Prepare long cooked dishes first so they can cook while you prepare quicker foods. Pressed salads and marinated vegetables also require time before they are ready to be eaten. I prepare dessert at the beginning of cooking as it will be eaten at room temperature, while some of the lunch dishes are better served directly from the fire. Save time when cooking breakfast and lunch together by blanching enough vegetables to supply both meals.
The evening meal may be similar to lunch or simpler, depending on your personal preference, schedule, and hunger. The grain may already have been cooked, so only two to three more cooked dishes are needed to supplement it. When I am hungry and can’t wait for dinner to be ready, I cook a quick soup before getting on with the main dishes of the meal. Usually that soup is consists of noodles topped with a dashi broth of shiitake mushroom, kombu and shoyu.
With proper kitchen management, the experience of changing from a conventional to a macrobiotic lifestyle can be inspiring, creative, and stimulating. Necessary adjustments are all possible with a positive outlook. When you change a career, move to a new place, renew religious practice or enter into a relationship you are faced with shifting habits and learning new skills. Altering eating habits is another significant change in your life that you will surely master with courage and conviction.