Endless bowls of brown rice and impossibly blue waters were what I expected when I was assigned to investigate macrobiotics on a cruise to the Caribbean; turns out, I saw green and pearl gray in the ocean as well as blue, and ate a much more varied diet than brown rice.
The nearly 1,000 of us who'd signed up for the fifth-annual Holistic Holiday at Sea, hosted by the educational foundation A Taste of Health (atasteofhealth.org) and co-sponsored by VT, sailed out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in late March. Our group totaled about a third of the passengers aboard the 890-foot Costa Fortuna, a ship equipped to reduce pollution and keep untreated sewage and gray water out of the ocean.
My fellow Holistic Holidayers and I were in for a week of classes and cooking demonstrations, as well as gourmet, macrobiotically inspired vegan meals and optional excursions to the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Grand Turk, and Tortola. According to National Geographic, we were embarking on one of the world's 100 best vacations to enrich your life.
Along the way I learned principles to guide me in preparing and eating my veg meals macrobiotically.
Live Big The first day of the cruise I attended "Macrobiotics 101," presented by macrobiotic counselor and lecturer Warren Kramer (macrobioticsnewengland.com), who began with his definition of macrobiotics: Life is bigger than just getting by. We eat, ultimately, to support what we want to do in life, Kramer explained. Or as fellow macrobiotic educator Lino Stanchich (linostanchich.com) put it, "Eating is an act of creating your very life."
Such a vital thing as eating, in macrobiotic philosophy, is best done mindfully. That means giving attention to what we eat rather than shoveling it in our mouths sprawled in front of the TV. It also means taking the time to chew thoroughly, slowing us down so we eat less and enjoy it more, bringing out the sweetness, for example, in whole grains.
Additionally, mindful eating develops our intuition, which makes us more conscious of what we require for our well-being. "Macrobiotics isn't about a one-size-fits-all diet," Kramer declared. "It's about principles and how to apply them. The challenge for each of us is to find out what we need at this time in our lives to be healthy." There's no eating macrobiotically on autopilot.
Balance Yin and Yang The "energy quality" of what we eat can either foster or hinder our well-being, notes David Briscoe of Macrobiotics America (macroamerica.com). Based on this "energy view" of food, the principles of yin and yang guide macrobiotic cooking and eating.
Yin and yang are complementary energies that are expressed in everything—including food and cooking styles—though relatively, rather than absolutely: Yin energy is expansive, yang energy contractive. Leafy vegetables that grow upward, such as leeks, kale, and bok choy, are relatively yin, while root veggies that grow downward into the earth, such as carrots and burdock, are relatively yang. Boiling vegetables in water enhances yin, whereas baking and roasting, exposing them to prolonged, high heat, enhances yang. Cooling salads are yin, warming stews yang.
Grasping the principles of yin and yang can help us prepare meals to adjust our energy levels. It can also help us avoid illness by limiting our intake of foods that upset our body's healthy balance, such as overly salty fare, which is extremely contracting (yang), and sugar and alcohol, which are excessively expansive (yin).
Synchronize with the Seasons Macrobiotic practice follows the principle of shindo fuji, translating from the Japanese as body and soil are one. "We're solar powered," Briscoe says about this connection. Plants release their energy, created from sunlight, to us as we eat.
Because our energy needs shift throughout the seasons, different cooking styles are preferable for different times of year: A speedier, yin style, such as blanching, suits sunny summer days, when quick refreshment is what we're after, whereas pressure cooking, which is more yang and builds strength deep in the body, serves us better in winter.
Cooking macrobiotically also means using vegetables at their peak, when they're in season and most naturally delicious.
Keep It Whole Eating foods in their whole form, according to macrobiotic thinking, not only primes us to think holistically, it also allows us to absorb energy from the food intact. Energy-rich whole grains—wheat, rice, millet, barley, oats, and corn—have traditionally been staples worldwide. Local vegetables have also been eaten for millennia to promote health and vitality. Whole grains and vegetables form the core of macrobiotic practice, supplemented for vegetarians by beans, nuts, seeds, and fruits.
Today, scientists are confirming that individual substances in what we eat, such as antioxidant phytochemicals, evidently protect us against disease not in isolation, but in combination as they're naturally found in whole foods.
Bring It Home What contrasted most from my usual veg fare during my Holistic Holiday were the breakfasts of miso soup and cooked whole grains. Also a departure were the daily servings of mineral-rich sea vegetables.
Back home in California, I'm following the advice of macrobiotic counselor and lecturer Denny Waxman (dennywaxman.com) and adding to what I normally eat, rather than obsessing about what to avoid: I'm snacking on sheets of nori and tossing kombu into the cooking pot. And if I can't quite manage miso soup in the morning, I can begin the day with a bowl of oatmeal, and anticipate being adventurous by breakfasting on wheat berry or quinoa.
"Please experiment," cruise chef Mark Hanna's teacher, Michio Kushi, a pioneer of macrobiotics in America, told him. Even without the sea literally moving beneath my feet—confirming lectures about life being in flux—I'll keep on experimenting, in hopes of honing my intuition about what's on my plate.
Soba Salad with Miso Vinaigrette (pictured)
MEET YOUR SEA VEGGIES
Sea vegetables concentrate minerals and
other nutrients at levels that leave landlubbing plants in the dust. In their book Japanese Foods That Heal, A Taste of Health's John and Jan Belleme provide a kitchen primer on these sea flora. A sampling:
Kombu (aka kelp) The minerals visible as
a dusting of white on the surface of this
brown algae make it a superb flavoring agent. Add it to soups and stews, and include it when cooking beans so they're ready in less time and easier to digest.
Wakame This relative of kombu is first soaked, then its fronds are sliced and added to soups and salads. Wild varieties are more tasty and tender.
Hijiki After soaking this black cylindrical algae, sauté it with sweet-tasting vegetables such as carrots, corn, or shiitake mushrooms. Or chop, and add it to salads or to cooked rice, millet, or barley.
Nori Sold in gleaming sheets, nori is most familiar as a sushi wrapping. Crumbled or cut into slivers, this calcium- and iron-rich seaweed is a nutritious garnish.
HOW TO MAKE EASY, EVERYDAY MISO SOUP
Macrobiotic practice prescribes a daily dose of soup made from miso, a fermented soybean paste, as a nourishing digestive aid. Here we offer a foolproof recipe for a single serving.
Start with 1 1/2 cups water or vegetable broth and 1 tablespoon miso paste. Bring water or low-sodium vegetable broth to a boil. Remove from heat, and stir in miso until it "blooms," or white swirls begin to appear.
For a heartier soup, simmer 2 tablespoons each of carrots, leeks, and wakame (seaweed) in the broth 10 minutes before stirring in the miso. Garnish with green onion and baked mochi or diced firm tofu, if desired.
Eat mindfully, and enjoy!