Chef Natsuko Yamawaki’s Healthy Approach to Ramen

The last thing Natsuko Yamawaki expected to do was to create a recipe for ramen. And she certainly didn’t expect to finish second in the most recent NY Street Ramen Contest. Yamawaki doesn’t own a ramen restaurant; she runs a catering company and teaches macrobiotic cooking classes.

A chef who has been practicing a macrobiotic diet for twelve years, Yamawaki uses probiotic ingredients in the meals she prepares for herself and her family. Two years ago she started making her own traditional Japanese seasonings such as miso, shio-koji, and amazake. Her husband is also in on the act, making kimchi, sourdough bread, and beer.

ramen, nyc, NY Street Ramen Contest, Hakkoan, Natsuko Yamawaki, shio-koji, macrobiotics, probiotics

Chef Natsuko Yamawaki at the NY Street Ramen Contest in Astoria

“Our health has improved ever since,” says Yamawaki. “No medicine, no sickness. We don’t go to the doctor, only for our yearly checkups.”

Although ramen isn’t generally a part of her repertoire, Yamawaki decided to enter the NY Street Ramen Contest “because I really wanted to introduce wonderful Japanese probiotic food, especially shio-koji, to American people.”

The Japanese have been consuming probiotics for centuries, whether they realize it or not. The core cooking staples of miso, soy sauce, and mirin – as well as sake and shochu – contain koji, a cultured mold spore from rice that is essential to the fermentation process. There’s been a recent boom in using shio-koji – a salted version of the rice mold – more directly in their meals to increase health benefits.

“The food is much tastier [because of shio-koji],” says Yamawaki. “Koji is popular now because it increases the umami [amino acids that gives food a savory flavor]. The koji has a lot of enzymes, which break down protein and carbohydrates, making food more digestible. It’s easy to break down fat and sugar. Koji cleanses the body.”

Operating under Hakkoan, Yamawaki’s catering company, she created Shio-Koji Abura Soba, which consisted of noodles with seasonal vegetables and shio-koji, but without broth, for the NY Street Ramen Contest. It was a hit; Hakkoan’s entry was only three votes shy from beating the winner, Tabata Noodle, a restaurant in Midtown West.

“I was very surprised, and I appreciate the result,” says Yamawaki. “Our teamwork led to the result. We tried to make ramen from our heart. We wish our customers to become healthier and healthier.”

Yamawaki says her style of ramen is healthy because she made everything by hand, trying to eliminate processed food, and she used organic vegetables when possible. She also avoided adding MSG or other chemicals.

“I’m concerned with not only the taste but the nutrition,” Yamawaki says. “I used seasonal summer vegetables to cleanse the body and cool the body down. I added a little spice from hot pepper because spice brings down body temperature.”

ramen, nyc, NY Street Ramen Contest, Hakkoan, Natsuko Yamawaki, shio-koji, macrobiotics, probiotics

Hakkoan's Shio-Koji Abura Soba

In Japan macrobiotics is gaining popularity with young women to enhance natural beauty and older people to improve their health. “After the tsunami tragedy people are becoming more concerned about their diet and carefully choosing what they eat,” says Yamawaki.

Through Hakkoan, Yamawaki hopes to bring macrobiotics to the forefront in the minds of New Yorkers. In addition to catering, Yamawaki teaches cooking classes and gives workshops, focusing on introducing Japanese probiotic food and educating people about healthy food in general. Yamawaki doesn’t want people simply to eat more probiotic foods; she wants people to make probiotic foods.

“I’d like people to get away from store-bought foods [even miso and soy sauce]. They are pasteurized, which lessens the nutritional value,” she says. “Making it is easier than people think.”

Yamawaki hasn’t started working on a new recipe for the Final Round of the NY Street Ramen Contest, which will take place in December. “But I’m anxious to work on new recipes. I want to use good ingredients for winter.”

Whatever style of ramen Yamawaki decides to create, she guarantees it will be delicious and healthy.

ramen, nyc, NY Street Ramen Contest, Hakkoan, Natsuko Yamawaki, shio-koji, macrobiotics, probiotics