Cooking Up A Cure with Fiona Uyema

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Fiona Uyema is a busy woman. In the middle of launching a new range of soy sauces for sale in one of Ireland’s biggest supermarkets, she’s also teaching regular cooking classes, representing Japan at food festivals, promoting her cookbook in magazines and on TV, sharing her recipes online, and raising two sons with her Brazilian-Okinawan husband, Gilmar.

It’s a world away from where she was back in 2008. Having just returned home after four years of teaching in the a small village in the Japanese countryside, Fiona was suddenly diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was placed onto a chemotherapy program in the local public hospital where the standard of food, she says, was pretty low.

“I knew I had to eat food filled with goodness to stay strong and help with my recovery. However it was a challenge while I was staying in the hospital.”

Unable to stomach the patient meals, Fiona turned to the food that she’d grown to know and love during her time in Japan. Her husband packed bento boxes stocked with simple Japanese dishes – food that Fiona felt was nutritious and easy enough to digest.

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Recovery was slow but Fiona believes that, to some extent, Japanese food helped her heal. It was at this point that she fully realised the impact that maintaining a Japanese diet could have in not only her life, but also that of others.

I felt a sense of responsibility to educate people about food and the benefits of the Japanese way of eating that had essentially helped me through a serious illness.

Recently, several studies have emerged that show how closely diet can relate to risk of and recovery from various diseases. Cancer researcher William Li’s popular TED talk suggests that we can “eat to starve cancer” and elements of the traditional Japanese diet, particularly in Okinawa, are often linked to low rates of some cancers (such as breast cancer) as well as increased lifespan.¹

“Low in fat, high in good protein and antioxidants, Japan is well-known for having one of the healthiest diets in the world and one of the highest life expectancies. I believe this is due to their healthy and balanced diets,” says Fiona.

Following her recovery, Fiona began to work on creating and sharing the recipes she’d picked up during her time in Japan. She decided to turn it into a full-time career, publishing her first cookbook “Japanese Food Made Easy” in 2015 which introduces easy-to-follow Japanese-style recipes into kitchens in Ireland and further afield.

“With cancer, obesity and dietary related health problems on the rise in Ireland, I wanted to share my recipes and encourage people to try them at home.”

For Fiona, the Japanese approach to food is an example we should all be following.

“Japanese people bring the philosophy of balance to all their cooking which means they eat with their eyes first, absorbing the colors, as well as appreciating the blend of different flavors on the tongue. A typical Japanese home-cooked meal is a nutritionally balanced one with a bowl of rice, soup and several other communal dishes including vegetables, fish and meat.”

At first, ingredients in Ireland were in short supply, but Fiona is starting to see more and more shops offering the basics to get you started.

“When I first came back it was difficult to source some of the key ingredients that had been everywhere in the Japanese supermarket. But now, I’d say that most, if not all, of the essentials are widely available for a reasonable price.

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Fiona is also passionate about using local Irish ingredients in her cooking where possible.

“Nowadays it’s possible to buy dried Irish seaweed in most large supermarkets. Since Ireland is an island nation like Japan it’s the perfect place to source ingredients for Japanese cooking.”

This year Fiona decided to extend her love for Japanese flavours to food production and launched her own range of flavoured soy sauces called Fused by Fiona Uyema. “It’s the perfect way to bring Japanese flavours and the concept of umami (basic taste) to kitchens across Ireland,” she beams.

Her timing couldn’t have been better. The popularity of Asian cuisine has been on the rise in Ireland and the UK, with the number of Chinese, Thai and Japanese restaurants up by 18% in the past five years. Sushi is now listed 14% more on menus today than it was two years ago.²

Whether they’ve been to Japan before or never used a chopstick in their life, Fiona hopes to make Japanese food accessible enough that people are able to incorporate it into normal cooking habits.

“Meeting the public always motivates me as it reminds me that I have an influence over what people are cooking in their kitchens at home. Once I teach the basics of Japanese home-cooking to people and the misconceptions that it’s too expensive and difficult to try at home, they are eager to learn about the Japanese way of eating and adapt it to their daily lifestyles.”

*Views expressed by the author and subject are their own.

  1. Soy, Isoflavones, and Breast Cancer Risk in Japan (Journal of the National Cancer Institute). However, the rate of stomach cancer in Japan is one of the world’s highest.
  2. Asian food booming in UK as sector grows (The Caterer, 2016).

Find out more information about Fiona and her story here.

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Tokyo-based writer and consultant.

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